The basic principles of nonverbal communication – 4

Principle IV: Decision making is largely an emotional, and therefore a nonverbal, process.

We’ve had an idea for a long time that decision making is best done by the rational mind rather than the emotional mind. Indeed, a good deal of business and organizational thinking sets the rational (good) against the emotional (bad). But recent brain research shows us that it’s time to turn this old way of thinking on its head.

The part of the brain that most directly governs the emotions is sometimes incapacitated by a stroke or other brain damage. And then a very interesting thing happens: the victims are unable to make decisions.

It turns out that emotions are essential to decision-making, and to try to take them out of the process is wrong-headed. Here’s how to think about it. Our brains ‘tag’ memories with emotions, depending on how significant those memories are. So, to take a very simple example, if you burn your hand by touching a hot stove, that memory gets tagged with a strong emotion. That makes it easy to make the right decision – avoid all future hot stoves – thereafter. Take the emotion away, and we’re liable to prod warm cooking surfaces at every opportunity.

Hence, we need our emotions to make decisions at all. To try to decide without them hangs us up completely, because we don’t know what’s important to us. So don’t try to make decisions without emotions; it won’t work very well.

What does this insight have to do with public speaking? As a speaker, you’re taking your audience on a decision-making journey. In order to make that journey possible, you have to include appeals to emotions. Otherwise the audience won’t care and won’t go with you. It simply won’t be able to decide.

Moreover, since emotions are largely signaled – and experienced – nonverbally and unconsciously, you need to make sure you are completely clear about the emotional journey you’re going on as the
speaker. If you send out mixed messages, you’ll confuse and distract your audience, and neither you nor it will get to where you want to go.

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