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The emotion-based approach to public speaking

6 min read


The late Maya Angelou once said. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It turns out that science can explain her observation.

In the book “Brain Rules,” molecular biologist John Medina says, “When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say the Post-it note [it creates] reads ‘Remember this!’” The amygdala, it turns out, does not store emotional memories but enhances them by making sure they are noticed when the event occurs and then having a better cataloguing system so that they can be retrieved.

The idea that emotions make for memorable moments can be used by speakers to deliver speeches that are remembered for a long time. This is called the emotion-based approach to public speaking.

How does one go about preparing a speech using the emotion-based approach? Let’s look at an example :

The gala dinner keynote

You have been asked to speak at a dinner gala. The gala is a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization which helps underprivileged children in developing countries. They fund the children’s schooling, fulfill their basic needs of food, shelter and clothing, and provide them an opportunity to move out of the deplorable conditions that surround them.

How would you prepare a speech for this dinner gala. Here are the steps based on an emotion-based approach.

1. Clarify the purpose

The first step in writing a speech is to clarify the purpose of the speech. This is the answer to the question, “What do you want your audience to think or do at the end of your speech?”

Clearly, you would like the community to contribute to the cause. It is a fund-raiser after all. But you want your keynote to do more. You want your audience to have a good time in a relaxed setting.

You summarize the key objectives of your speech

  • Community contributes money
  • Community has a good time

2. Develop the final emotion

The final emotion is the emotional state of the audience at the end of the speech. In most cases, the final emotion should align with the purpose of the speech. This is the answer to the question, “How should the audience feel at the end of the speech for them to do or think what I want them to do or think?”

Based on the purpose above, you summarize the emotions or feelings that you must evoke in the audience.

  • They would contribute if they feel there is a genuine need and they can make a real difference.
  • They will have fun when they feel that no one is judging them or expecting something from them.

You decide that the final emotion, the emotional state of the audience at the end of the speech, should be the following: “An empowering feeling when you realize that you can make a difference in the lives of needy children and an exciting feeling that you have just seen a project that allows you to make that difference.”

3. Understand the initial emotion

This is the emotional state of the audience at the start of the speech. In many cases, the speaker does not control the emotion at the start of the speech but has to set the initial emotion.

It will be Friday evening. The audience will be tired after a hectic week in the office. Having been to many fundraisers yourself, you know that at least some will feel uncomfortable because of an expectation to “give.” You would like to relax them, make them comfortable so that they listen to your message. This is your initial emotion.

4. Plan the emotional journey of your audience

This is the journey from the initial emotion to the final emotion.

At the start of the evening, the audience will be tired after a week of work and apprehensive due to the expectation to donate at the fundraiser. You plan to start working on their emotional state even before your speech. You have worked with the event co-coordinator to set a welcoming and inclusive mood evening. All volunteers have been instructed not to purposefully bring up the topic of donations or expected donation amounts.

The entire evening will be about meeting people, talking about family and getting people comfortable. Even the menu for the evening has been chosen such that it reminds people of a home cooked meal. It will add to the emotion of feeling welcome and comfortable.

You will build on this emotion in the first part of the speech and use stories that connect you to the audience and make them feel comfortable and ready to feel the strong emotions of your speech. You then engage the audience with your main story. The story evokes strong emotions of helplessness and sympathy. These negative emotions form the low point in the emotional journey of the audience.

Finally, you will bring the audience back up emotionally as you resolve the conflict to end your story, leaving them with strong positive emotions of inspiration and empowerment. These emotions will make your message memorable and will catapult the audience to act.

5. Identify the speaking tools

A speaker uses various tools like stories, voice modulation, gestures, eye contact etc. to take his audience on an emotional journey. These tools should not be confused with the speech, which is the emotional journey of the audience.

You will start the speech with humorous anecdotes about flying a kite with your son. This will allow you to connect with the audience, help them relax and evoke the initial emotion. Then you transition into the story of a child laborer called Vijay. You will use this story to bring the audience to the emotional low that you want in your story. This lowest point will be related to the conflict introduced in the story. The resolution of this conflict will result in positive emotions being generated in the audience. You will develop these positive emotions and will finally leave the audience with the final emotion using a few lines of poetry.

6. Write the speech and then practice

Build on the tools identified to write the entire speech. Practice and use feedback to identify tools that are helping the emotional journey and those that are not. Change the tools that are not working.

7. Your speech is ready when …

… at the end of the speech, the emotions of your audience are aligned with the final emotion identified earlier.

Vikas Jhingran is a speaker, author and engineer. His new book, “EMOTE: Using Emotions to Make Your Message Memorable,” introduces a unique emotion-based approach to verbal communications. Vikas has a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and leads a team of engineers at Shell Oil Co. Find more information about at