How Emotional Connections Drive Visionary Leadership
For an effective lesson on how to engage your audiences, think about university professors. Some rattle off statistics and facts like Lieutenant Commander Data of “Star Trek” without regard to the notion that actual human beings are listening. Type “most boring lecture ever” into Google, and you’ll see an array of videos uploaded by disengaged (and at times angry) students.
Other professors captivate students. They enliven information. They make it breathe. They make it personal. Remember Robin Williams as John Keating in “Dead Poets Society”? He reminded his students that while medicine, law, business and engineering are all noble and necessary pursuits, “poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
Professor Keating made his students feel his lessons. He used emotion as an ally. Leaders are like professors in that they are trying to educate, motivate or share a vision. They try to connect with people.
According to Bonnie Hagemann, John Maketa and Simon Vetter, authors of “Leading with Vision: The Leader’s Blueprint for Creating a Compelling Vision and Engaging the Workforce,” it’s often a struggle to reach people at an emotional level. Moving away from a reliance on hard data, like facts and figures, means taking more risks than many trainers (and others) are accustomed to taking. But if you want your audiences to act on your words and your challenges, emotion isn’t just a “nice to have”; it’s vital.
Hagemann notes that the research is vast and compelling: Emotions are the dominant driver of most meaningful decisions. Research from 2015 concluded that “emotions powerfully, predictably, and pervasively influence decision making.” So, whether your vision is to change the world, or just change sales tactics, if you effectively use emotion, you’ll hook your audience. Every leader wants to motivate people to achieve shared goals. To fulfill a vision, the audience must choose to achieve it, and research shows their choice is always driven by emotion.
Consider Habitat for Humanity’s vision statement: “a world where everyone has a decent place to live.” It’s a big vision, but it’s easy to get behind. It connects with people emotionally; most people readily support the idea of everyone having a decent place to live.
The way your vision is communicated is also important. As a leader, at some point, you will be responsible for taking ownership of the vision through a presentation to others. How you convey the vision, the passion with which you bring it alive for the people and the emotions you will create will be on your shoulders.
There are many technical aspects to this process, and there are hundreds of articles and books about presentation skills. But there are deeper ways to elicit emotion and connect with your audience:
- Be authentic. Nobody will buy into your vision or your leadership if you don’t believe in it.
- Show passion. Role-modeling behaviors starts with you. If you’re passionate, others will be as well.
- Respect your audience. Don’t write one speech and repeat it. Speak to each audience as if you’re presenting for the first time.
- Share your visualization. Help your audience see themselves in the scene you’re trying to create the same way you envision yourself sitting by the pool when you book a vacation.
- Be clear about expectations. If you want people to change, tell them that’s what you want, and tell them why.
- Show vulnerability. Even saying something as simple as “I can’t do it without you” will strike a chord.
- Be supportive. If you’re asking people to change, tell them you understand it will be hard, and explain how you will help them adapt.
- Focus on the goal. That’s what the vision is, after all.
It doesn’t require an abundance of time, effort or even words to win over your audience. It’s often effective to “pitch” people on the idea with which you’re trying to convince them to align. When you pitch your vision, keep it simple, and remember to add some emotional appeal.
The movie “Alien,” starring Sigourney Weaver, is a great example. On the internet, you can find a synopsis of the movie that’s more than 500 words long. The synopsis might be factual, detailed and accurate, but it’s probably also dull. It doesn’t make you feel much. But the actual pitch to the movie studio was three simple words: “‘Jaws’ in space.”
“‘Jaws’ in space” works because it’s visual, simple and emotional. You get a chill thinking about it. It’s not quite a call to action the same way a vision is. But if you can creatively simplify and visualize your message, you have a greater chance of connecting with your audience. If you can top it all off with an emotional element, you can inspire them to share your vision and go with you on the journey you are leading.
Brett Halbleib is a journalist and freelance writer/editor with more than 20 years of experience writing about health care, life sciences and personal development, among other subjects.