The Power of Arousal: How to Activate Your Audience

In his bestselling book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, author and Jonah Berger explains why some New York Times articles make it onto the Most Emailed list and others do not. Over the course of a multi-year study, Berger and his research team discovered that the reason people are motivated to share articles is emotion. When we care, we share.


But not all emotions prompt the same level of sharing. Some emotions, like anger, anxiety and awe, are high-arousal emotions. When we’re incensed or inspired by something we can’t help but tell people what happened or share the content that inspired the emotional reaction. This is also one of the reasons funny things get shared: amusement is also a high-arousal emotion. Other emotions have the opposite effect. Sadness and contentment, for example, are low-arousal emotions that stifle action. When we’re aroused, we do things. When we’re not, we don’t.

So, what does all this talk of high arousal and low arousal mean for your next presentation? It means your next presentation has to focus on feelings.

That’s right, feelings.

The dreaded F word.

POSITIVE Awe, Excitement, Amusement (Humour)Contentment
NEGATIVE Anger, AnxietySadness
Source: Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger

About 75 percent of all presentations focus on information. And 99 percent of the time, that information is not enough. Rather than waxing on about facts, figures or features of whatever you’re selling, you and your audience will be better served if you focus on the underlying emotions that will motivate people to take the action you want them to take.


“That’s all well and good,” you might be thinking, “but I have to present the quarterly earnings report to the board and they just want the numbers, not the feelings.” Maybe. But I’d argue (as would Jonah Berger) that any presentation can focus on feelings, even if they don’t have an obvious emotional element.

How do you unearth the emotional core of your presentation overall and different aspects of your presentation more specifically? How do you find the emotional hook for your quarterly earnings presentation?

Try the “Five Whys” exercise.

World class innovation and design firm IDEO (and many others) use this exercise when they’re trying to understand the core of a problem or the motivation underlying a person’s behaviour. It’s a powerful exercise to use when you’re looking at slides filled with drowse-inducing data. Ask “why is this information important?”. Record your answer and ask why again. Keep asking why until you get to the emotional reason why the material matters - or you realize it doesn’t matter at all and then you can cut it. This will help you figure out which high-arousal emotion—anger, anxiety, awe, amusement or excitement—will drive people to take action. Once you identify the most relevant emotion, you can come up with stories and examples that will evoke that high-arousal emotion. When you add more arousal to a presentation, it boosts your ability to transform attitudes and change behaviour.

Too often we forget that business is about more than numbers. It’s about people. And people are emotional creatures, who make decisions and take action because of emotion. Emotions make us laugh, shout, cry, talk, share and buy. So rather than quoting statistics or drowning your audience in data, focus on feelings. You need to move people if you want them to move in the right direction.

Share this post: 

Talk Deconstruction: Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer, social justice activist and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He has gained international acclaim for his work challenging bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system. Bryan is an inspiring person and an intelligent, engaging speaker who has a lot to teach us.

In this talk, given as part of the Zeitgeist Minds series, he does a lot of remarkable things.

Here are five key aspects of Bryan’s talk that you might find instructive and inspiring:

  1. The Structure. His structure is simple and clear, making it easy to understand and remember his talk. At the start, he uses compelling statistics to establish the size of the problem and why we should care about inequality and injustice. Then he clearly outlines the four key things the audience can do to curb the troubling trends and change the world: (1) get proximate to the problem; (2) change the narrative; (3) be hopeful; and (4) do uncomfortable things. He then closes with a powerful call to action, reminding the audience that “your work and worth can only be measured by your battle wounds”.

  2. Storytelling. For each of the four solutions Bryan outlines, he tells one major story to illustrate the importance of the solution and the impact it can have. It’s not enough to state the facts or to posit solutions. It’s easy to think that the magnitude of the data points will carry the day, yet numbers alone fail to humanize your ideas. Providing examples and telling stories makes your subject real, relatable and moving. Bryan uses stories masterfully to engage his audience and facilitate understanding and action.

  3. Lack of Slides or Notes. Bryan doesn’t use notes or a single slide, proving that you can speak powerfully without any visual aids or prompts, particularly when you have a clear structure supported by stories.

  4. Use of Language. Bryan has a tremendous command of the English language. His factual content and the case he makes for more equal justice is made almost lyrical by his rich use of language and beautiful turns of phrase.

  5. Delivery. Bryan is a calm, confident speaker. He doesn’t move around much on stage and his gestures are understated and natural. He uses a conversational tone of voice and uses a lot of eye contact to make his content, concepts and call to action accessible.

You can watch his presentation here. You may want to watch his talk straight through and then take a look at the deconstruction so you can appreciate the whole and then the specific aspects that make it remarkable. Or you can steal some glances at the commentary below as you watch through the first time in the player above.

00:25Bryan shares some confronting statistics about incarceration in America to establish the problem that needs to be addressed.
4:10He tells a personal story to underscore the importance of “getting proximate to a problem” so meaningful action can be taken and relevant solutions can be put in place. Because a group of lawyers came into his community and forced the school board to open public schools to African American children, he went to high school and was able to go onto college.
06:18Bryan tells a story about a 14 year-old boy who was placed in an adult prison while he awaited trial. This child was brutally and repeatedly assaulted and wept for an hour when recounting his experience. Bryan extrapolates from this story to highlight the fear and despair experienced by the 10,000 children who are under the age of 18 and serving time in adults jails and prisons across the United States.
09:11He asks a confronting and powerful questions such as who is responsible for this? If you don’t feel moved at this point in his talk, you might want to check your vital signs.
11:22Bryan uses evocative language to outline the importance of changing the narrative about race in America: “We are all burdened by the legacy of racial inequality that has never been addressed. We are all infected by this disease, this narrative of racial difference that our parents and our grandparents did not address. We were silent when we should have been speaking. And because of that, it bothers and burdens all of us.”
14:06Reflecting on the history of civil rights in the United States Bryan says: "For decades, we humiliated people of colour. For decades we burdened and we battered and we excluded people. For decades we told people you’re not good enough to go to school with the rest of us, you’re not good enough to vote.” He makes effective use of repetition, using the phrase “for decades” over and over again to emphasize the intractable and persistent nature of race narrative in the US.
15:25Again, using powerful language, Bryan provides sobering comparisons to South Africa and Germany to support his assertion that a different kind of conversation about race and slavery is required in the United States. South Africa and Germany confronted the impact of apartheid and the holocaust with truth and reconciliation and physical, visible reminders of these dark chapters in their history. In the US, he suggests, people look for ways to exit conversations about race, rather than ways to mark and discuss and resolve the history so a new future can take shape.
16:09Bryan makes repeated use of the phrase “I am persuaded” and in doing so he invites the audience to consider whether or not they are also persuaded which allows listeners to decide for themselves.
17:05To illustrate the importance of staying hopeful, Bryan tells a story about a prison guard who didn’t believe he was a lawyer and forced him submit to a strip search before allowing him to see his client. After hearing Bryan present his client’s case in court, this guard changed his mind and told Bryan to keep fighting for justice.
22:12In the final minutes of his talk, Bryan again uses powerful language to provoke and prompt us into action: “We have to do uncomfortable things. You do not create justice by only doing comfortable and convenient things."

Bryan’s talk works because he lays out his structure clearly at the beginning and continues to come back to the four things that will help us create positive change. He captivates and compels his audience through stories, examples and evocative language that connect with the intellect and emotions of his audience.

This one is worth watching twice.

Share this post: 

Jane ni Dhulchaointigh: A Speech Deconstruction

Jane ni Dhulchaointigh is not a professional speaker and that’s a big part of the reason I chose to launch this series of presentation deconstructions with her 99u talk. It’s easy for us to think that only polished presenters can have an impact. That only the very best, most experienced speakers can touch hearts, change minds and move people to their feet. Not so. And Jane is a perfect example to debunk the “perfection is power” speaking myth.


Her story on its own is inspiring: she created something of value from nothing and overcame countless obstacles to do so. But it’s her doubt-ridden confrontations with failure and her humility, ingenuity and sense of humour that make you cheer for her as a person and a speaker.


Here are three key aspects of her talk that might inspire you as they did me:


  • Authenticity and Humility. One of the key strengths of Jane’s talk is how much of her whole self is on the stage. You get a strong sense that she’s being open, real, honest and vulnerable. Her humility is ever present as she tells of her repeated failures and quiet successes.


  • Use of Humour. Her humour is grounded in her humility, both of which are infectious and draw you in.


  • Storytelling. Jane’s entire talk is a story—the story of her journey to develop the material that would become Sugru and the story of building a business that would foster a passionate user community. She does a great job sharing the highs and lows, the turning points and what changed her trajectory along the way. She also does a brilliant job of telling the story of Sugru by sharing the stories of her customers and how they are using Sugru to improve their lives and the lives of the people they love.


You can watch her presentation here. You might want to watch her talk straight through first and then take a look at the deconstruction so you can appreciate the whole and then the bits that make it special. Or steal some glances at the commentary below as you watch the first time.


00:19She’s wearing orange tights and pink sneakers. Definitely a stand-out even at a creative conference about making great ideas happen.
00:20Jane starts her talk by admitting that she’d never heard of the conference before she was invited to speak. Refreshing and honest.
00:43Jane’s talk is full of unexpected admissions, insights and colourful language. Here she shares that “good design makes everything look easy. The truth is completely the opposite. Making stuff happen is “really f#@king difficult.” A great insight, authentically expressed that resonated with the creative audience.
2:39In describing what Sugru is, Jane says, with humility and levity, “You can mend things with it. You can make things with it. And it has some really great physical properties: it’s dishwasher proof, waterproof, heat resistant, blahdey-blah [with a dismissive, humble hand wave]. That’s it.”
4:17Jane talks about moving to London at 23 to study product design “with big high hopes of becoming a famous product designer...until I realized a few weeks in that I was actually a pretty sht product designer. Really sht.” Again, a refreshingly honest confession, delivered in a humourous way.
5:05She uses her own handwriting to label the various highlights and lessons learned over the course of her discovery and development journey, making the process more personal.
6:06Throughout her talk, Jane shares the “what if” questions that drove her process, an inspiring example of humility in creative problem solving and putting the customer at the centre of a design process, instead of the designer. (Pro tip: great presenters do the same.)
8:47Jane talks about meeting a bunch of scientists who taught her about chemistry so she could perfect the silicone substance that would eventually become her product, Sugru. At 9:00, she talks about getting the white coat (like a scientist in a lab) and that helped her feel the part. As she shares this part of the story, she mimes putting on the white coat and does a little “joy wiggle” that is endearing and funny.
14:50Jane shares a picture of herself, on the floor, in shock, after the online launch of Sugru exceeds all expectations and changed the business. The antithesis of the humble brag.
18:30Jane is jumping up and down as she shares a customer letter. This spontaneous expression of pure joy is touching and hilarious and conveys the passion she has for her customers and what they’re doing with her product.
19:15She shares a moving story of a dad who uses Sugru to fix his child’s feeding tube, a beautiful example of sharing a customer’s story to engage the audience and create emotional resonance.
20:39Jane suggests that it’s not Sugru that’s awesome, it helps make [the customer] more awesome. Genuine humility at its best.
21:36She recounts how a customer who wanted to participate in an epic canoe race in the Yukon was only able to do so because she modified her paddle with Sugru to accommodate the missing fingers on her left hand. Wonderful storytelling told with joy and authenticity.

Jane’s talk works because she speaks with humility, candour and colour. She has an infectious spirit that helps her form a quick bond with the audience so we’re celebrating her victories as our own.



Share this post: 

The One Thing You Must Do to Improve Your Speaking


It’s practice. That’s the one thing. No need to be coy about it. If you practice, you’ll improve.

I know. It’s not sexy, or rocket science. Or easy. Which makes it even less sexy.

But practice is where the magic is. Here are 10 ways to practice your presentation skills:

  1. Multitask.

    Yes, this goes against the avalanche of very sound “don’t multitask” advice out there. But you don’t have to create more time in your day to practice your oral communication skills. You just have to send less text-based communication. Instead of sending an email or text message, pick up the phone or get out off your butt and walk down the hall. Sitting is killing you anyway, so take a walk and communicate with another human using your vocal chords. Happy body + practicing presentation mouth = two birds and very productive multitasking.

    In addition to giving you a reason and way to practice your presentation skills, communicating in person is especially important if you’re making a big ask of someone, need to give them some constructive feedback or have to share some sensitive information.

  2. Leverage your existing communication occasions.

    Again, you don’t have to look for new places or opportunities to practice—use the ones you’ve already got. If you present at a regular status meeting, stand up when it’s your turn to report or share your content in a different way (use a whiteboard, for example). If you call someone and get their voicemail, leave a message and listen to it—most voicemail systems allow you to review your message at the end. If you like it, send it. If you don’t, re-record. It’s a great way to improve the quality of your communication.

    Practice outside of work. You could be having a beer with a friend and telling them a story about the flat tire you got on the weekend. You don’t need to tell him that you’re working on your eye contact, but you can use the opportunity to do so as you tell them about the salty tow truck driver who saved your day.

  3. Enroll your boss, colleagues, or confidant.

    Pull your boss aside before you jump on a conference call and tell her what you’re working on as it relates to your presentation skills development. Ask her to listen for those things so she can provide you with feedback afterwards. You could also create a speaking buddy system with some trusted colleagues so you can provide each other with feedback and coaching. What gets measured gets done and these feedback requests will focus your efforts.

  4. Record for posterity. (And practice.)

    One of the best ways to improve your speaking skills is to record yourself speaking and listen to the recording. Nothing shines a light on your development areas better than hearing your own voice. If you’re on a conference call, turn on the voice recorder on your smartphone. After the call, listen back and ask what works and what you would do differently next time? You can do the same thing in meetings or in presentations (with the permission of the attendees/participants) so you have a point to reference to work and improve from.

  5. Identify low risk opportunities.

    Look for low risk opportunities to share your knowledge and ideas with an audience that will benefit from your insight. Think about individuals, team, organizations or audiences who might benefit from what you know and/or are passionate about.

    You could volunteer to speak at your next department meeting and present a summary of trends you’re seeing that relate to your group’s priorities. You could provide a snapshot of competitive activity or an interesting strategy that’s working in another industry and how your team could apply it in your context. In short, research a topic that’s of interest to you and helpful to your colleagues and share the learning. It gives you an opportunity to practice and improve your skills and boost your profile.

    You could also look for opportunities in your community. What knowledge do you have that might benefit your child’s school, your faith community, your child’s sports league, the charity you support. If, for example, you’re a cyber security expert who typically consults to large organizations, you might do a short presentation at a school on simple online practices people could do to boost security for themselves and their kids.

    Use these low-risk speaking opportunities to have some fun and stretch yourself.

  6. Join Toastmasters.

    I was a Toastmaster for three years and I can tell you first hand it is a great organization. They provide a supportive environment that is designed to give you a forum to practice in and freedom to expand your repertoire. Their proven structure ensures everyone gets an opportunity to speak, practice their skills and get some feedback. Toastmasters is also a great way to meet a cross section of your community you wouldn’t otherwise meet, all of whom are interested in growth and development and willing to do something about it.

  7. Watch TED talks.

    TED talks are a tremendous resource for anyone who wants to improve their presentation skills. Watch TED Talks and other great speakers online to get inspired and watch for things they are doing that you can try. You can also watch for quotes or other content that you could use or reference in one of your own presentations. Or you might see a TED speaker share a concept in a visually interesting way that inspires some ideas for one of your own talks. You could also deconstruct what they’re doing well, things that you would like to replicate. This helps you keep good habits and practices top of mind as you’re developing own communication skills.

  8. Teach others.

    One of the fastest ways to mastery is to teach people. Look for opportunities to teach others what you’re learning about speaking. You’ll get to practice speaking, share your knowledge and give back.

  9. Focus your efforts.

    It’s easy to get frustrated if you try and work on too many things at once, sometimes resulting in a backslide in your development. If you want to catalyze your growth and development in anything, including speaking, isolate and work on one skill at a time.

  10. Be patient and kind.

    This is an important one. Be kind to yourself as you’re trying to improve. Recognize that ignorance is bliss and while you may have been more comfortable in your old ways, you were probably less effective. As you start working on your speaking skills, you may frustrated because there is a gap between your ideal performance and where you are now. Be kind with yourself. Patience, kindness and persistent practice will pay off.

So, it’s not sexy or easy, the practicing. But the more you practice the more quickly you will move into the realm of unconscious competence: You’ll be able to do the things you want to do without even thinking about it. Once you’ve done that with one aspect of your speaking skills, you start on the next until it’s second nature. And then you rinse and repeat.

If you’d like some more tips on speaking well, sign up for our helpful guide on How to Research, Plan and Rehearse for Your Next Presentation. It’s my best advice all packaged up in a printable, easy-to-use, step-by-step guide.

Share this post: 

Top Five Terrible Pieces of Speaking Advice


There is a lot of advice about how to be a better speaker sitting on bookshelves, floating around the web and wafting about the offices of presentation coaches and consultants. Some of it’s good advice, some of it’s great and some of it is terrible.

So, today, I give you five of the worst pieces of advice about speaking well.

  1. Don’t over prepare. You’ll sound too rehearsed.

    This is bad advice because for 99.9% of the population it is 100% not true. Unless you are one of those rare savants who can get up and speak brilliantly off the cuff, you have to prepare. A lot of people confuse the comfort of ignorance with effectiveness: they would rather get up and wing it than go in with a plan and measure their presentation performance against that plan.

    If you don’t prepare, your content will lack structure and you will likely be too comprehensive (read: bore your audience with details they don’t care about.) And when you don’t craft your content in advance, you won’t be able to share relevant stories or examples that will help your audience understand your ideas and your personality to shine through which will deepen your relationship with your audience.

    When you create content on the fly, you can’t be present in the room. Instead, you will be consumed with trying to figure out what to say next and you’ll miss the opportunity to connect with your audience. You’ll likely miss their cues that are telling you they’re confused, bored, or engaged. On-the-fly energy also make you appear uncomfortable and lacking in confidence: fidgeting, shifting from foot to foot, racing your eye contact around the room and using a lot of qualifying phrases such as, “sort of”, “kind of” and “you know”.

    When you are prepared and well-rehearsed you demonstrate a deeper command of your subject matter because you don’t have to rely on your notes, you can reference back to things previous speakers said and you can be spontaneous and add levity to your remarks.

    Ultimately, your level of preparation is a reflection of the respect you have for your audience’s time and attention. Respect them enough to prepare so the time they invest in listening to you is worthwhile.

  2. Memorize your talk. The best speakers never use notes.

    This is terrible advice because when you memorize your talk, it will sound memorized. You lose the conversational tone of voice and the opportunity for your authentic personality to come through. When you speak from memorization, the cadence of your delivery gets thrown off because you’re so focused on getting lines out, you lose your natural rhythm. People hear it and, unless it’s their child competing in a second grade speech contest, they don’t like it.

    And when you inevitably lose your place, you’ll likely stay lost and fumble around trying to remember what’s next, often repeating the preceding phrase hoping it will cue up the next sentence. All of this scrambling about is painful to watch and doesn’t help your credibility. If you’re the subject matter expert, you’re expected to be able to speak about content that you know well without having to memorize it.

    It’s a false choice to think you have to memorize or read from a script. These are not your only two options, although both of them are bad ones. Instead, speak from bullets set out to prompt you as you proceed through your talk. If you need to script out what you’re going to say as an interim step to figure out what you’re going to say, that’s fine, but don’t stop the prep there. Extract a few key trigger words and phrases to prompt you as you move through your presentation.

    You can bring your script with you as your Linus security blanket but do not hold it. Put your bullets on top and use those. Give yourself permission to say your points differently each time so the essence of the message is conveyed while you sound natural, engaging and conversational. It’s more important to get the essence of the message across than it is to be eloquent.

  3. Never use your hands. They’re distracting.

    This makes me throw up my hands in exasperation. Not using your hands when you speak robs you of the opportunity to add clarity, presence and dynamism to your delivery.

    Imagine trying to give someone directions to a local pub, or describing an athlete’s appearance. or explaining a team’s progress before and after a new process was introduced.

    When you fail to move your hands, you appear to be wooden and stiff and look like you’re trying to do an impression of Al Gore circa 1991. (He’s come a long way.) Ask your friends or colleagues what they did over the weekend and watch their hands and arms: They move! And they move naturally to enhance their storytelling. You want your hands and arms to do the same because gestures help tell a story, make a point, close a deal.

  4. Always move around the stage. You’ll appear more dynamic.

    It is great to draw inspiration from your favourite televangelist or infomercial presenter if you’ve nailed the core skills that provide far greater return than moving around the stage. Skills like developing well-structured and compelling content, making meaningful eye contact, using appropriate gestures and cutting out filler language.

    In general, a lot of movement around the stage or at the front of the room has significant downside and limited upside. You diminish your presence as you drift aimlessly around the room and shift your weight like you need to hit the loo. In some cases, audiences start to focus more on your movement because they’re worried you might fall off the stage or bump into furniture and hurt yourself. Or them.

    Instead, stand still. Especially for the first few minutes of your talk, when you want to minimize distractions and establish your presence. Then, and only then, should you periodically and purposefully move to point to something on the screen, delineate a timeline or engage a different part of auditorium or lecture hall.

    Bottom line: focus on the core skills first. There are many, many other things to work on before you start worrying about moving around. It’s much better to animate your upper body and settle your eye contact than it is to move.

  5. Provide your slides beforehand. People like to take notes.

    Presentation is an inefficient medium to be comprehensive in. You can’t, and shouldn’t try, to tell your audience everything you know about a subject. Instead, embellish a few key points and provide them with more detail after your talk.

    Why? Because you want them to be paying attention to you, not reading your deck. If you distribute a comprehensive handout at the beginning, you’ll feel pressured to speak to everything in that handout. You’ll also get stuck in the eloquence trap where you feel the need to say the things on the slide exactly as they are written on the slide. Your presentation slides should be simple because they’re designed to be presented. Your handout can be more comprehensive because it’s been designed to be read.

    If you’re asked to provide handouts beforehand, say no. Let the organizer know that you want to focus on the key points during the presentation and that you’ll be happy to provide something more a summary or comprehensive leave-behind at the end. At the beginning of my talks, I let people know that they will get a summary handout afterwards so there is no need to take notes.

    You may get the odd person bellyaching about not getting the handout at the beginning because they like to take notes on it. That’s great feedback because it means they really value what you’re saying, but it shouldn’t change your approach. It’s worth taking that feedback in the service of engaging the audience in the room, when they’re in the room with you, so you can engage them with your subject matter and deepen your relationship with them.

So, there it is: the worst speaking advice and what to do instead. If you’d like some more good advice, check out our articles on How to Research, Plan and Rehearse for Your Next Presentation.

Share this post: