In attention, emotions, fear

We misunderstand how people make decisions. That’s the message in Kotter and Cohen’s The Heart of Change.

The standard view, they say, is that we analyse, then think, and then we change. They believe the process is markedly different: we see, then we feel, then we change. Thinking, if it comes at all, comes after the feeling, more justifying our decisions than driving them.

So, central to the decision-making process are feelings, emotions. Emotions often get a bad rap, but we’d be in a bad place without them. In fact we wouldn’t be in any place without them.

The root of the word ‘emotion’ is the Latin ‘movere’ – to move. Emotions serve to assess situations with lightening rapidity, and then get us to act. As Drew Weston says, our emotions “provide a compass” helping us to steer a course towards the helpful and away from the harmful.

As presenters, we usually aim to get our audience to do something different, to change, so an understanding of emotions and the role they play can be hugely beneficial.

Because it’s more important to avoid being eaten than it is to eat, negative emotions are more powerful than positive. It’s commonly stated in psychology that bad is twice as powerful as good, but some researchers suggest the truth maybe even more shocking: a nine-to-one bias towards the negative.  As Dr Rick Hanson says, Positive information is Teflon; negative is Velcro.

So let’s start this three-part tour of the emotions by looking at one of the most powerful: fear. Fear is a massive trigger for attention. As attention exists to help us survive, anything that presents a threat to us will capture our focus.

That’s why you so often to see fear evoked in presentations. The speaker gives the audience the full ‘burning platform’ description hoping to convince them of the need for action, the action they are about to suggest.  But there is a problem.

The more successful we are at creating fear in our audience, the more convincing must be our solution as a way out of catastrophe. A frightened audience must feel that your solution has a high probability of success. If they feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problem you’ve painted, the result is often inertia. This  may be one reason why action on global warming has been so slow. Scientists have perhaps painted too convincing a picture of climate catastrophe without being able to provide solutions that seem up to the challenge.

There is a further reason for presenters to use fear with care. Psychologist Tali Sharot explains that emotions often trigger basic, quick responses – go or no go. This is what William Wundt called “affective primacy”: a lightening fast signal in the brain to either approach or to avoid, even before ‘we’ consciously know ‘what’ it is. This is why you might jump back at the sight of a ‘snake’, only to find it’s actually a coil of old rope.

Fear, not surprisingly, triggers a response of no go. So it’s a great emotional trigger for some messages, but disastrous for others. Rather than provoking us to take positive action, fear commonly stops us in our tracks. As presenters, we need to align the fear trigger with a message not to act. For example, which of the two messages below are more likely to succeed?

Don’t drink poison or you’ll die.

Eat more vegetables or you’ll die.

So, while fear is a powerful trigger for attention, it does need to be used with care. To use it effectively, you need two things: first, a convincing solution to the problem you’ve outlined; second, a solution that asks the audience not to do something or to stop doing something.

If you need your audience to do something positive, Tali Sharot suggests that it’s often better to frame your messages positively, because the emotions this elicits will be much more likely to inspire us to act.

Negative emotions have a place in pitches and talks, but a limited one. We’ll see next time an emotion that’s always at home in any presentation.

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