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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How Do You Prepare for a Presentation? The Second Step is PLANNING.

Once you’ve done a good job getting clear on who your audience is and what they care about, you’re ready to start setting some Communication Objectives and mapping out your Content.



Before you even open PowerPoint, you have to get crystal clear on your Communication Objectives. What are you trying to accomplish with your presentation? These three questions will help you clarify your objectives before you start mapping out your content:

1.    What do you want your audience to DO as a result of listening to you? What decision or change in thinking or behaviour do you want to affect?

2.    What does your audience need to KNOW to be motivated to take these actions? What information do they need to make that decision or embrace that change?

3.    How do you want your audience to FEEL as a result of your presentation? What emotions do you want to stir up over the course of your talk? For example, you might want to move them from uncertainty to anxiety to confidence and then clarity.

This “feelings” piece is often the hardest to reflect on and apply in the business context because business communication tends to be extremely rational. But if you want your content to connect, you have to dig into and design for emotional response. You can evoke relevant emotions through the examples you provide and the stories that you share.

And if you’re feeling some Communication Objectives shame because you rarely think about these questions before you start and/or during your presentation prep, you’re in good company. Many of my clients aren’t able to answer these questions either—even after they think they’re done mapping out their presentation content!

Taking a strategic approach to your content development requires that you think about your objectives up front, before you start mucking around in PowerPoint. I highly recommend that you do your presentation planning process in analogue mode, with pen and paper or Sharpie markers and Post-It notes. This approach encourages more divergent, generative thinking and curbs the temptation to dump list after long list of dry bullets into endless PowerPoint slides. It also disrupts the classic slide shuffling/editing trance.

(It’s important to note that this objective setting exercise will be frustrating and fruitless if you don’t know who your audience is and what they care about. If you haven’t done your Research Your Audience homework, do it now!)



Once you’re clear on your Communication Objectives, you’re ready to frame your remarks and develop compelling support (examples and stories) to bring your ideas to life.

And lest you think you can skip this step, consider what it would be like to eat at a cafeteria without a tray, plates, glasses or food. You need something to hold everything together, containers to put things in and food to enjoy when you sit down. The same is true with a presentation: you need a primary promise that carries your content and makes it easy for your audience to stay with you, “containers” to put your content in and delicious examples and stories to make your presentation memorable.

Statement of Purpose

You will want to start with a Statement of Purpose that will outline what you’re going to talk about and why. A helpful way to find and articulate your Statement of Purpose is to answer the following question:

What is the most pressing question that your audience has, especially as it relates to your experience and expertise?

It’s usually a good idea to answer this question right up front, soon after you share your Statement of Purpose. Audiences are impatient and they’re eager to to know why they should listen. Don’t be afraid to show them the last page first as it will help them relax and enjoy your presentation. An exception to this guideline is if you find yourself speaking to an audience with a negative bias that doesn’t align with your purpose and promise. If that’s the case, you will want to save the conclusion until the end and build your argument so you can bring the audience along on the “I’m going to prove it to you” journey.

Three Essential Messages

When you’ve got your Statement of Purpose articulated ask HOW and WHY. The answers to HOW and WHY will provide the sub-structure to your presentation and help you establish your three Essential Messages. It’s important that you keep your Essential Messages to only three because research suggests that things that come in threes are inherently more satisfying and easier to understand and remember. Make sure your three Essential Messages are discrete from one another.

Support and Proof

Under each of your Essential Messages, you’ll then develop your Support and Proof, the evidence that makes each of your three Essential Messages clear and compelling. Be sure to use as many examples and stories as you can. It’s not enough to share data and knowledge. You want your audience to feel certain ways as you move through your Essential Messages so choose your anecdotes and examples accordingly. And be sure to share your most compelling Support and Proof first unless you need to build something that requires sequential logic to understand. The sooner you have your audience agreeing with you, the better!


Once you’ve moved through your Essential Messages and their related Support and Proof, you’ll be ready to craft your Summary.  Your Summary is simply a collection of key reminder points from each of your Essential Messages so the audience can get that key content one last time before you move on to your closing.

Commanding Opening and Compelling Close

When you’ve worked out your primary presentation content, you’re ready to design your Commanding Opening and your Compelling Close. The Commanding Opening must be relevant to your audience and link to your Statement of Purpose. Your Compelling Close will tie back to the Commanding Opening and include a Call to Action—what is it you want the audience to do as a result of your presentation? Make sure the Call to Action is clear and that you outline any relevant next steps before you wrap up and thank your audience and host.



When you take a structured approach to the design and development of your presentation content, you automatically compartmentalize your content in a way that makes it easy for your audience to understand and enjoy what you’re sharing. If you map out the journey for them—“we’re starting here, I’m setting out to answer this question by exploring these key themes, let’s get started with theme #1…”—and keep coming back to that framework your audience will not only stay with you, they will pick up what you’re putting down and take it home with them. This is the most important goal for presenters, one that so few achieve.

Yes, it does take time, patience and practice to effectively plan a presentation. But investing in planning will deliver huge returns in confidence, credibility and audience engagement. And it will help you stand out from the sea of planning-adverse presenters.

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