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Aim for the Emotions

Fear, love, anger, compassion—they all have the power to stir anyone in front of you. If you want to influence your audience you must search for language that has emotional appeal. These appeals don't have to be blatant and obvious; in fact, the best ones are subtle. You can create emotional appeals by using impact phrases—memorable groups of words that shake listeners from lethargy and stay in their minds. Ideally, these phrases touch basic human emotions and help your listeners empathize with your perspective. A fund-raiser for the homeless says, "Think how you would feel if you had no home." An opponent of airline deregulation asks, "Remember how angry you felt the last time your plane got canceled, or you sat on the runway for hours?"

When Abraham Lincoln finished the Gettysburg Address, many listeners had tears in their eyes. But tears are not the only, or even the most important, measure of emotional impact. Laughter is also a basic emotion, and impact phrases can be humorous. Describing his own tendency to procrastinate, one speaker said, "I am rather like a mosquito in a nudist camp: I know what I ought to do, but I don't know where to begin."

Never underestimate rhetoric's ability to move an audience; it's been doing just that for centuries. Gorgias, a Greek who lived in the fourth century B.C., was renowned in Athens for using language so beautiful people thought it was magic. Three centuries earlier, Archilochus, another master of words, had a reputation for caustic phrases. After he spoke witheringly of his in-laws one day, they were so upset by his words that they killed themselves. Although the average businessperson no doubt has less severe reactions in mind, nonetheless it's good to realize that words can and do go straight for the emotions, even in the most routine presentation. Memorable speakers harness the inherent power of words.

The 12 Most Persuasive Words in the English Language

While you're aiming for the emotions, you'll find these words coming to your aid over and over again.

  1. Discover. With shades of childhood treasures, this word conveys excitement and adventure. If you tell the people in your audience that you want to share a discovery with them, you start to make your enthusiasm contagious.

  2. Easy. Many people are basically lazy and will look for a quick, uncomplicated answer. The success of books such as Richard Feynman's Six Easy Pieces: Essential of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher and Mel Klieman's Hire Tough, Manage Easy: How to Find and Hire the Best Hourly Employees are proof of this tendency.

  3. Guarantee. We are all reluctant to try something new because of the risk involved. Take away that fear by guaranteeing a sure thing, and you can sell your audience on the point you're trying to make.

  4. Health. Self-preservation is a great motivator. We gravitate toward anything that will improve our condition or make us feel better.

  5. Love. The thing we can't do without, and the one word that evokes all kinds of romantic fantasies.

  6. Money. People react perceptibly at the thought of making money.

  7. New. Having something new, knowing something new—this 'word has an intrinsic appeal. Speakers are always striving to impart new facts and figures in their presentations.

  8. Proven. Another no-risk word. Proven assures listeners that something has already been tested and given the go-ahead.

  9. Results. This is the bottom line—where you tell people about what they will get, what will happen, what they can expect.

  10. Safety. Unless your audience has a death wish, the idea of safety is very comforting.

  11. Save. Even the wealthiest people shop for bargains. It's not just money that entices; people also want to hear about saving time.

  12. You. I've saved the most important word for last. Persuasive speakers personalize their talks and use this word often. Try to avoid too many personal pronouns—I, we, our—and the anonymity of "today's session." Make it "your session today," and carry that emphasis on your throughout your presentation. You can't stir your audience up if you don't address them directly.


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