Just over two years ago, I was preparing for the biggest speech of my career when a question from a pair of coaches stopped me in my tracks: “What do you want the audience to feel?”
At first I was offended by the question. I don’t want the audience to feel. I want them to think. My favorite definition of persuasion comes from Chris Anderson: “the act of replacing someone’s worldview with something better.” I was hoping to reason with the audience’s worldview, not emote with it.
But upon reflection, I can’t think of a more important question about communication. On issues that people hold dear, to change what they believe, you have to change what they want to believe. That means I had to appeal to passion and reason (if you’re a disciple of Hume), pathos and logos (if you’re an Aristotelian), heart and mind (if you’re a speaker of plain English).
So I sat down begrudgingly (only later did I lament that I was emoting) to decide what I wanted my audience to feel.
Inspired? No. I’m a teacher, not a preacher. Leave inspiration to gurus leading people on spirit walks across hot coals and then trying to inspire their second-degree burns to heal in a flash.
Confident? Definitely not; too Stuart Smalley. Choked up? Nope, not comfortable with anyone breaking down into tears.
Eventually I settled on three emotions: surprised, fascinated, and amused. It’s probably not a coincidence that these are my three favorite emotions to feel when I’m sitting in an audience—we all want to deliver the talks we most love to watch.
Surprise appeals to me because we learn the most when our assumptions are challenged or our expectations are shattered. It also resonates because I used to be a magician (though my wife is fond of reminding me of a Family Guy mantra: magicians are on the second-to-last rung of the hierarchy of entertainers, right between ventriloquists and mimes).
Fascination matters because it means we’re not just awake but jazzed to learn more. As for amusement, laughter is as much fun to give as receive—and it’s also the most audible and visceral cue that the audience is on board.
The two coaches, Abigail Tenembaum and Michael Weitz, were right. It's a question worth asking whenever you communicate something that counts. What do you want your audience to feel?
The answer depends on your desired impact. If you’re speaking on injustice you might want them to feel righteous indignation. If you’re addressing sources of anxiety you might aim for calm. If you’re surfacing the mysteries of the universe you might focus on awe.
Maya Angelou put it best: “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
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