February 4, 2014

Why Do Leaders Hesitate to Show Emotion? Guest post by Rob Biesenbach

I work with a lot of executives on their speeches and find that one of their biggest hang-ups is a reluctance to open up and show emotion. And it's a shame, because a proper display of emotion is one of the most effective ways to connect with an audience.

The Power of Emotion

Studies show that an "emotionally charged event" has a bigger impact and persists in people's minds far longer than any ordinary neutral event.

So if you want to really break through to an audience, don't just bury them in facts and data. Make them feel something. Grabbing hearts is the key to changing minds.

For leaders, especially, emotion has a humanizing effect. It inspires empathy, creates common ground, and lowers the walls that separate us.

Why the Reluctance?

Many of my clients are classic Midwesterners—down-to-earth and self-effacing.

One executive I work with always comes up with the best stories to illustrate his points. They're drawn directly from his personal experience and they trigger an immediate emotional response.

But as we get closer to the speech date, he becomes reluctant to share these stories. He'll ask, "Are you sure they want to hear this personal stuff?"

I think the issue has less to do with them than with him. He's just not comfortable opening up. It's not the way he's wired.

And he's not alone. Many people hesitate to get emotional, for a variety of reasons. Some view it as a sign of weakness. Others worry that once they start they won't be able to stop.

Opening Up is a Duty of Leadership

I believe that leaders have a responsibility to show their human side. It's what audiences crave, whether it's employees who need to be inspired, customers who require empathy, or community members who want to know you share their values.

So get fired up, get righteously indignant, get a little choked up now and then.

If that makes you uncomfortable, remember: it's not about you. This isn't personal therapy; it's about motivating your audience.

Make it Personal

Most people can relate to the love of a mother or father, sister or brother, spouse or significant other. Talking about those who are closest to you is an important way to draw others closer.

Think about the important people in your life and ask yourself:

▪ What makes them special?
▪ How did they help make you who you are?
▪ What's the best lesson your mother, father or child taught you?

President Obama often brings big public policy issues down to earth by talking about his children. Here he is discussing the Trayvon Martin case:

"I can only imagine what these parents are going through. And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this …"

By making the universal personal, he connects powerfully with his audience.

Create a Rallying Cry

Most people, from C-suite executives to workers on the production line, take pride in what they do. They want to feel that their work matters and that they're contributing to something bigger than themselves.

They need a rallying cry. So don't just talk about what you do, talk about why you do it. Answer these questions:

▪ What do you love about your work?
▪ What's the big picture? How does your organization/product/service make people's lives better, in ways big and small?
▪ What about the company's history and heritage—are you proud to be part of that?

Chrysler is a company that was on the brink of oblivion a few a years ago. Its comeback was advertised in the powerful Super Bowl ads narrated by Eminem and Clint Eastwood.

When the Eastwood ad was unveiled to Chrysler's dealers, CEO Sergio Marchionne rallied the troops with these words:

"Those who have lived through difficulties and have seen the dark days of desperation know that the only way to get through them is by finding the values that are important in life; rediscovering a sense of belonging to a project, a community, a nation; embracing hope; looking ahead; and taking your destiny into your own hands."

It was just the kind of appeal that a demoralized audience needed. But what happened next raises an important question.

Can You Go Too Far with Emotion?

After rolling the video, the lights came back up, and Marchionne was so overcome with emotion that he broke down in tears.

It could have been a disaster, but many of the dealers were in tears themselves, and rose up and gave him an extended ovation that lasted several minutes.

Chrysler is a special situation. In the context of its near-death experience, a big emotional response is understandable.

In most cases, though, executives will want to be a little more restrained.

One thing that actors are taught is that just managing to fight back tears is far more powerful than openly weeping. Think about George W. Bush in the Oval Office after September 11.

Emotion Must Be Sincere But Strategic

The judicious use of emotion, applied strategically and for a purpose, can have a big impact. Of course, it shouldn't be contrived—it should be genuine.

And it doesn't have to be "negative" emotion, either. Passion, enthusiasm and joy go a long way, too.

Emotion is too powerful a tool to keep it bottled up. Step up and let it out.

Rob Biesenbach is a veteran speechwriter, public speaker, actor and author. His new book, 11 Deadly Presentation Sins: A Path to Redemption for Public Speakers, was just released this week. You can find Rob on Twitter and on his blog.

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