Thursday, September 22, 2011

Speaking of Emotions: Keeping it Together

A big part of being an effective speaker is sharing part of ourselves with our audiences. Usually, this comes in the form of a funny story from our past that supports a point, or self-deprecating humor to build a connection with the audience.

For some speakers, though, their speech topic hits so close to home that their stories become filled with emotion, both joy and sadness. They may talk about a joyous reconciliation with a parent just before their death. They may talk about a tragic accident to themselves or a loved one that taught them a new way of thinking. They may even talk about their divorce - which, I suppose, could go either way.

Common wisdom is not to talk about anything too emotional before you've dealt with it, because being emotional on stage can cost you credibility with an audience. While there is truth to this, there are some speakers and topics which involve and rely on strong emotional response to succeed, sometimes even in the middle of dramatic events.

Affiliate Link? Sort of, I guess...
My wife speaks about Thriving with Neurofibromatosis. This is a genetic disorder that affects her and three of our kids directly with tumors and plexiforms, and our whole family, of course, in a myriad of ways. When Kristi speaks, her intent is to inform, entertain, and inspire audiences. This means telling stories that aren't always filled with happiness. 

One of her most emotional stories involves our daughter Bailey, who is currently going through chemotherapy for a non-cancerous, but still growing brain tumor. The tumor may or may not be NF-related, though, ironically, were we not getting regular MRI's to keep tabs on NF, the tumor may have gone undiscovered until it was far too late to do anything about it. NF or not, dealing with it is certainly a part of living a "Thriving Life", and it is a crucial component to her presentations. 

Talking about your child and chemotherapy. How would YOU keep it together

A. Practice. The more Kristi delivers her speech, the more comfortable she becomes, and the more detached she's able to be - she's ready for the emotion to hit, and can re-channel it into effective delivery instead of simply breaking down on stage.

B. Stay Audience Focused. You are there to Motivate, not Manipulate, to deliver a message, not to evoke sympathy for your own benefit. While both will occur with emotional stories, if sympathy trumps message, your audience won't be served, and their sympathy likely won't help you much anyway. 

C. Dialogue. Instead of simply narrating the story and risking allowing yourself to get too deep into your current feelings, tell the story as it happened. What did the doctor say? What did you say back? Report on your activity and describe the emotion "in the moment", instead of continuing to live within your ongoing emotions.

D. Let the Tears Flow. Real emotion that doesn't lead to a total breakdown on stage can increase your audience connection, and help them realize you are a person, not just a 'motivational speaker'. Showing NO emotion about something so close to your heart can create suspicion and even cynicism within your audience. It's a delicate balance, between a voice choke and a real tear or two and going all Jimmy Swaggart on your listeners.

E. Plan Chute Deployment. Construct your speech with a small moment of humor, or an uplifting outcome to bring yourself, and your audience out of freefall during emotional parts of your speech. With Kristi, a crucial part of her story about Bailey's tumor is our daughter's unique and humorous response to the bad news. This gives both her and her audience an opportunity to know they are in an emotionally safe situation, and continue to enjoy and benefit from  the experience.

Don't let emotion rule your speaking - either in what you choose to talk about or what not to talk about, or as you deliver your messages. Emotional connection is essential in any talk - people buy first with emotion, second with logic, even if you're talking about abstract ideas, purchasing heavy farm equipment, or a can opener (ooh - this gold tinted can opener makes me feel like Donald Trump, and its affordable too!). 

Use emotion improperly in your speech, and you'll be standing on stage powerless. Use it properly, and your message, and its delivery, will be powerful, effective, and unforgettable.

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