The Power of Emotional Appeal

Leaders use emotions, not logic, to inspire their teams to do great things. By following a few simple principles, you can create an emotional appeal that resonates with your audience.

Today’s post is by Chuck Garcia, author of A Climb to the Top (CLICK HERE to get your copy).

When the United States Olympic hockey team glided onto the ice to face the Soviet Union in Lake Placid, New York, on Feb. 22, 1980, Cold War tensions had reached a boiling point.

A year earlier, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, rekindling simmering tensions between the two superpowers. The winner would advance to the finals to play for the gold medal, but there was far more at stake in upstate New York in 1980 than mere Olympic glory. The game came to take on a great deal of symbolic importance. It was Communism versus Democracy. Centralized Control versus Free Markets. East versus West.

Before the match, things looked bleak for Team USA. Having lost to the Soviets ten to three in a previous exhibition, the Americans were given zero chance of winning by the media and hockey pundits.

The Soviets were the most dominant team in the history of Olympic sports. With a win-loss record of sixty-two to six, they arrived at Lake Placid having won four straight Olympic gold medals.

The odds makers had them easily skating their way to a fifth. They practiced eleven months of the year and played with a remarkable unity of effort. The Americans were amateur college athletes, cobbled together by a combination of opportunity and circumstance.

Luckily, Team USA felt that this time they had an advantage. Their coach was an inspiring leader named Herb Brooks. A two-time Olympian himself, he was considered a “driven perfectionist” by his players. According to one of his players, “he treated us all the same, rotten.” Some hated him; some loved him. But this much was undeniable: everyone on Brooks’ team respected him. Still, hope for Olympic glory seemed beyond their grasp.

Fifteen minutes before the big game, Brooks walked into the locker room and came face to face with a team that looked as if it had conceded victory. Yet, he had a keen sense of situational awareness— an ability to take the pulse of his players by reading nonverbal cues. His players looked defeated, nothing more than a collection of slumped shoulders and vacant stares.

Knowing he had to capture their attention, he then did what great leaders do. He gave his team a call to action: win this game. But he did it in a way that relied more on emotion than reason. You can watch Brooks’ speech depicted brilliantly by Kurt Russell in the movie Miracle.

In the film, the actor walks into the locker room, pauses for several moments and then says with tremendous confidence and conviction:

Great moments are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One game.

If we played them ten times, they might win nine. But not this game; not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight we stay with them, and we shut them down because we can.

Tonight, WE are the greatest hockey team in the world.

You were born to be hockey players—every one of you, and you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw ‘em. is is your time. Now go out there and take it!

That’s all he needed—just those 124 words delivered with passion and intensity. In that moment, Brooks gave birth to a locker room full of believers. When you watch the scene, you’ll notice a few important techniques all leaders should remember when making an emotional appeal.

– When Brooks walks into the locker room, he waits fifteen seconds before he says a word. He uses that silence to create dramatic effect to ensure he has their attention.

– When he starts his speech, he begins with impact. “Great moments are born from great opportunity.” He’s in the moment. There is no past, no future. Just one game. “Tonight we shut them down because we can.”

– He ends with a call to action and emotional appeal that strikes a nerve with his team, which goes out and does exactly what he wants them to do—win that game.

If Brooks had appealed to his team’s sense of logic, perhaps the game would have been over before it even began. Instead, he highlighted the opposite side of the same coin. He used emotion to move his team, which is one of the most important techniques that any leader in any field should learn to make their own.

Want to move an audience to your cause? Or change their minds about a given topic? Or convince prospects to get out of their seats and buy something they swore they never would?

Then do what Herb Brooks did: appeal to your audience’s base emotions, and you’ll be able to move mountains.

It is emotion that guides the major decisions we make in our lives and careers—not facts and figures. In my experience, the same is true for an audience, both large and small. It’s puzzling that many leaders focus their attention on the facts and leave emotion behind.

To appreciate the science behind the power of emotional appeal, consider the research of Antonio Damasio. A professor at the University of Southern California, his body of work on the neurobiology of mind and behavior centers on emotion, decision-making, memory, communication, and creativity. In his book Descartes Error, he argues that emotion plays a central role in social cognition. When confronted with a decision, emotions from previous related experiences affix values to the options we are considering. These emotions create preferences, which lead to our decisions.

George Campbell, a Scottish philosopher, said it best in his 1776 book Philosophy of Rhetoric: “When persuasion is the end, passion also must be engaged.” How then do you generate emotional appeal in a world that demands metrics and empirical evidence?

Here are three key principles to keep in mind when you prepare to stand and deliver:

Use emotional language. “Great moments are born from great opportunity.”

Develop vivid examples. “Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world.”

Speak with sincerity and conviction. “This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over!”

A Climb to the Top– Chuck Garcia is the author of A Climb to the Top: Communication & Leadership Tactics to Take Your Career to New Heights. He is the founder of Climb Leadership Consulting and a Professor of Organizational Leadership at Mercy College.

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One Response to “The Power of Emotional Appeal”

  1. Bud Kulesza says:

    Excellent article on using the power of emotional appeal !

    Maya Angelou stated the concept very well

    “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ― Maya Angelou

    Thanks Chuck for making giving us insight as to how to make that happen!

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