Why Emotion is Essential in Speaking

In my first few weeks of beginning this journey of creating resources for speakers - here on the the This Moved Me blog and on the podcast - one of the very first people I talked to about it was Erin Walsh. She is a great friend of mine, but also she totally GETS what I'm trying to do here. She is a speaker, a super-smarty brain researcher who is uber-thoughtful - while at the same time being accessible, down-to-earth, and as emotionally-literate as they come. I respect and admire her, and think she's just GREAT.So I interviewed her here - one of the very first interviews I did! And on that interview she talked about the importance of scaffolding our data and research with emotion. (Not so different from what Data Viz expert Stephanie Evergreen says, too!) Yes. But also, why??  I wanted to hear more from Erin's point of view. 

Now, I could write a blog post about this, and it would have the same point (emotion is essential in speaking); but it would be about rhetoric. Having Erin write this means that you'll get the latest brain research behind that same point. So valuable! I know you'll soak it all up.

Thanks, Erin, for your time on This Moved Me - and your continued support of this work!  I am super excited to share more of your thoughts with the TMM community! 


The first time I was paid to make a public presentation was shortly after my college graduation. The organizer of the event had provided the basic details. There would be a podium, a microphone, and a stage looming in front of theater seating for up to 500 people.

To describe my state as nervous would be an understatement. Full-blown panic would be more accurate. Luckily I knew how to respond to such over-the-top performance anxiety. I crammed. I studied hard and doubled the amount of information in my presentation. As I added more evidence of my expertise, I could start to relax a bit. I arrived at the presentation that evening in full armor sporting my best power suit, cleverly worded bullet points, citations for the skeptics, and a laser pointer.

You will probably not be surprised to hear that my high tech powerpoint and laser pointer did not save me that night. Although there were only 20 parents in the cavernous auditorium I sweat through all three layers of my power suit.

Truth be told, this inaugural presentation actually went fairly smoothly. In spite of my nervousness the organizer told me that I came across as calm, competent and professional. That said, the presentation was far from successful. While I avoided a public meltdown I doubt that anyone remembers or cares about a thing I said. And if no one remembers or cares about the message what’s the point of standing on a stage?

I was so focused on my content that I forgot to create meaning and memory.

Making memories

What did you have for breakfast one year ago today?

If you are having trouble answering that one, try this.

What were you doing on the morning of September 11, 2001?

No doubt, your brain found it easier to retrieve information in response to the second question. If I close my eyes I can recall exactly what I was doing when I first heard the news of airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center. What is it that makes some experiences come alive in vivid detail later while others fade away without notice?

It starts with paying attention

It may seem obvious, but we don’t remember what we don’t pay attention to. There are massive streams of data coming in through our five senses at any given moment. The reason our brains are not overwhelmed is that we only pay attention to a tiny slice of it at any given time. But how do we decide what to pay attention to? Well for starters, the brain generally doesn’t pay attention to boring things without exerting tremendous effort. This makes sense given that the brain’s primary job is to keep us alive. We are hardwired to focus our attention quickly and efficiently on things that are novel, things that might pose a threat, and things that trigger powerful emotions.

It is not that we can’t pay attention to “boring” information. It just takes effort and motivation to focus on dense evidence and bullet points. We have to decide to do so and exert energy to sustain our engagement. On the other hand, our brain is built so that we almost can’t help but pay attention to highly emotional or novel experiences.

That’s why so many drivers slow to a crawl to look at traffic accidents.

Attention is the gateway to memory

Once attention narrows the stream of sensory data, then memories can begin to be encoded, stored, and, ultimately, retrieved. Not everything we experience, however, makes the cut. Committing every breakfast we have ever had to long-term memory would make for a very cluttered mind. Instead our brain has developed a powerful mechanism that helps us decide what is important enough to store. Especially important events are chemically tagged for quick and easy retrieval. And when it comes to deeming what is important – emotion is again the key. Molecular biologist John Medina describes emotions as neurological “post-it” notes that read, “remember this later.”

The stronger the emotion, the stronger the tag. Memories of emotional events last longer and are easier to recall.

Making meaning of it all

So what does this mean for us speakers?

If we want our audience to pay attention to and remember our data, evidence and core message we need to embed them in a compelling emotional experience.

There are lots of ways to evoke emotions of course. We could stage something unexpected that would grab the audience’s attention and heighten anxiety. We could share pictures of cute kittens or babies that would pull on their heartstrings. But our job as speakers isn’t just to evoke emotions for emotion’s sake. It is to create an emotional experience that anchors the memories of our key messages. We do this by crafting compelling content and sharing it with our audiences through a good story. A good story is the best way to put a neural post-it note on your message.

[Tweet "A good story is the best way to put a neural post-it note on your message. -Erin Walsh on @ThisMovedMe"]

If I were to go back to my just-graduated-from-college self and give her a pep talk I would probably say something like this: There is nothing wrong with a great powersuit or even a powerpoint for that matter. Review the evidence and include the most important data, it helps the audience trust you and cements your understanding of the content. Do your homework. Cram if you need to. But whatever you do don’t let evidence and data overpower your ability to create meaning and memory. In short, don’t go on stage without an emotional anchor. In the absence of a compelling story, your content is likely to just drift away


Erin Walsh is co-founder of Mind Positive Parenting, an organization that translates the latest brain research to help equip parents and teachers to help raise competent young people in this 21st century.

·      Brosch, T. et. al. (2013). The impact of emotion on perception, attention, memory, and decision-making.Swiss Medical Weekly.

·      Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The Hidden Drive of Excellence. New York: HarperCollins.

·      Medina, J. (2014). Brain Rules. Seattle: Pear Press.

·      Willingham, D. (2004). The Privileged Status of Story. American Educator.

·      Vuilleumier, P., Brosch T. (2009) Interactions of emotion and attention in M.S. Gazzaniga (Ed.) The Cognitive Neurosciences IV. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

photo credit: Bloons! via photopin(license)

Sally ZimneyComment