Emotionally engage your audience | 4 condiments to make your content sizzle!


When I was 12 I learned a valuable lesson in how to emotionally engage groups of people.

There was a general election going on at the time and my school headmaster thought it would be a grand idea to hold a mini election of pupils, no doubt to inspire young minds and get us involved in the debate going on in the country.

For some reason candidates were chosen in a Hunger Games style by having their names pulled out of a hat. I was ‘volunteered’ (or should that be ‘tributed’?) to be the Lib Dem candidate and then promptly started to worry about what I was going to do as I had to give a short 3 minute speech the following week on why i should be elected – in front of the whole school as part of morning assembly.

I remember sitting on the settee with my Mum and Dad that night and asking them what I should do. Dad could see my concern and reassured me by saying that we needed to write a script.

So we wrote one, by going through a process of writing the key content message over the next few days and refining it a few times until it started to flow.

And then, about halfway through this process, Dad said that this was all well and good but my speech needed to do something weird called “sealing the deal” (he was after all in sales!) which would help me connect with my audience.

So he helped me come up with a killer speech punchline which I still remember at the time made me feel quite sick just thinking about from nerves about how I could deliver it.

I remember practicing my speech at the top of the stairs of our house so I knew it off by heart. My poor Dad, Mum and Brother must have heard me do this over 100 times.

The morning of the assembly came, and I was terrified. After the bell had rung for assembly, all of the school filed into the main hall and I joined the other candidates by sitting front and centre on the stage.

The headmaster went though a quick introduction and explained the speech order, which is when I found out I would be going last  (I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing). Each of the other candidates then went through their speeches, with each receiving cordial applause. And then my name was called.

I stood up from my chair and I looked out at the hall at the hundreds of faces staring back.

I started to speak.

It didn’t start well. I stumbled over a couple of points which in turn caused my cheeks to flush and my leg started to involuntarily shake in an Elvis fashion. But I then somehow got into my stride and went through my pitch to be the school Prime Minister.

I seem to remember outlining three key things in my mini manifesto;

  1. a new food menu as my friends and I were bored with the same gruel every day,
  2. more computers in the lab as 1 BBC Micro between 3 pupils was very frustrating, and
  3. for my year to be allowed to go into the adjoining sports centre at lunchtime so we could play on the arcade machines.


From memory, these all appeared to land quite well with the audience.

And then I came to the moment I had been feeling extremely nervous about – my speech ending.  I breathed in, calmly looked around the room and then literally bellowed:

“Vote for me and I will get us more stuff!

Vote for me as I stand for Pupil Power!”

While I was saying this I hoisted my arm in the air with a big fist pump and in doing so did a very good impression of Wolfie Smith.

There was silence for a moment. The audience starting looking at each other and then suddenly the assembly erupted. People started cheering. I looked bewildered. The other candidates looked shocked. I was a rabbit in the headlights.

After my speech, while I was walking through a school corridor, other pupils who I had never even spoken to (shock horror – some even from the years above) would come up to me and shout “pupil power!” and stuck their arms in the air – even the teachers were doing it! I just wanted to crawl into a very small space and think what had I just done?

Later that morning each class voted for who they wanted to be prime minister. And would you believe it I was actually elected to the honourable position of Prime Minister for my school. The closing gamble had paid off – and some of my manifesto pledges were even delivered! What Dad had taught me was the power of creating emotional engagement with my audience.

Flash forward to today…

Over the last few weeks we’ve all been bombarded with Remain and Brexit leaflets and letters and every day there are presentations in regard to the pros and cons of staying in or out. Each side seems to have a healthy marketing budget to tell us just how we should be thinking and voting. Sadly, the messages from both camps are now starting to morph into one. I’m just not feeling it – there is no emotional engagement for me.

So here’s the thing.

Content really is king. The trick is how to present it, weave it into the key messages and create something memorable that people can relate to and get on board with. And to do this effectively you have to create emotional engagement in parallel.

Even though I stood on that school stage over 30 years ago, whenever I create a presentation today I still follow the same two basic principles that I learnt as part of my ‘pupil power’ speech.  First – I always focus on the key content messages and the goals that need to be achieved – the ‘sausage’ if you will! And  second, then – and only then – do I start to think about shaping and creating emotional engagement – aka the ‘sizzle’!

Note – it is ALWAYS this way around. I have occasionally tried to skip to step 2 first, by thinking of my emotional engagement strategy and then create the content and it’s never achieved what I wanted, with the outcome being the presentation coming across a bit ‘gimmicky’ and not achieving my aims – not good.

And as its bbq time, for your tasting pleasure, here are four condiments to make your content sausage sizzle and squeeze in some emotional engagement in the process;

1. Less really is more. Recent research suggests that audiences can typically only recall 10% at the very most of anything presented to them – it’s called ‘the forgetting curve’. Hone, hone and hone again your message. Be brutal with yourself. My three ‘mini manifesto’ commitments were the core of my message.

2. A quick story can work wonders. Personalise your presentation and sell the content with a story. The other pupils could all relate to the anecdote of crowding around the computers to ‘have a go’. For more on this I wrote a blog on storytelling which you can read here.

3. Practice, practice, practice. Mark Twain famously said “It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech“. So practice until it sounds and looks like you are doing the most natural thing in the world. If you don’t like the idea of standing at the top of your stairs and reciting your words, go for a walk in the park and say the words out aloud.

4. Never forget, it’s all about THEM, not you! Finally, don’t waste the opportunity of creating brilliant content and not engaging people with it. Back when I was running for Prime Minister it was all about what the other pupils wanted, not me.

Remember – sausage first, then sizzle!



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