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.

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