Speak Eagle

“Zoom in on the Tears”- 3 Safeguards Against Using Emotion to Manipulate Your Audience

It’s my Faithful to Speak workshop and we’re talking about emotion in the context of public speaking. Joanne raises her hand, “But how do you know when you’re being manipulative? Using emotion because you know it will get to your audience?”

Her question makes me dig deep. And it takes me back to a late summer afternoon many years ago in downtown New York City…

The burned-out apartment building looms ahead of us. Black smoke still hangs in the air. I’m the 22-year old grip, the TV news intern who lugs the heavy gear behind the seasoned cameraman and the famous reporter. I would much rather be the famous reporter than the lugger of heavy gear. Ah…but such is the lot of the intern.

As we walk, the reporter urges the cameraman, “Roll camera!”

We head towards a small group of people, huddled together, holding each other, tears streaming down their faces.

He shoves the microphone toward one devastated woman, asking, “What happened?

She is visibly shaking. “The fire, it destroyed everything. We have…nothing left. And my neighbor, I heard he didn’t get out.”

The reporter nods, and as the woman cries, he leans back and whispers to the cameraman, “Zoom in on the tears.”

I almost choke. Did I really just hear that? Zoom in on the tears? Use this woman’s tragedy because you know it will “get to your audience” and you will be applauded for your great story?

It still makes me angry, nauseous. In that moment I decided- if that’s what years of reporting tragedy does to a person, I want nothing to do with it.

Years later, I’m not a reporter, but I’m a teacher, a writer, a storyteller. So why does Joanne’s question still cut me to the core?

If we’re being completely honest, how often have I, have we, as communicators, as storytellers, been guilty of this very thing? Of zooming in on the tears, describing something tragic for our own power, our own gain? Manipulating our audience to focus on us as great and important storytellers rather than on God and His work and on the people who need our help?

I know I’ve done it. I once wrote of a tragedy and was taken aback by all the offers to help. I thought people would just tell me I was a good writer. My own selfish heart makes me nauseous, too.

Really, how far is it between the calloused reporter telling an audience about a woman who lost everything in a fire, and us telling an audience (or a friend) a story just because we want the effect of it, not because it moves us personally on a heart level to do something about it?

There are three simple safeguards that I believe can keep us from using emotion to manipulate our audience.

Find your heart. Ask God to reveal your true motives to you, and then explore your own heart. Remind yourself why the story first compelled you and then find your real, authentic emotions again. If the story doesn’t move you personally anymore, choose a new angle or a new story that stirs you afresh.

Experience empathy. Instead of the typical, safe, “Isn’t that terrible?,” put yourself in the other people’s shoes. Feel what they might be feeling, realize you are just an event away from being where they are. Try to understand their pain and pray for them as you would want someone to pray for you.

Get involved. If you are telling a true, current story, and if your heart is authentically and compassionately involved, you will be compelled to act and to compel others to act. Speak or write words of hope to those involved, hug with real arms, help with real hands. Sometimes hugging and helping is all it takes to find your true heart in the story.

Every one of us are storytellers, whether it’s on a stage or in the breakroom. And often emotion is a necessary part of the telling. But the next time we use emotion to tell a story, let’s do it with authenticity, with empathy, and with the willingness to help.

Now…I have a tragic story to tell you about a poor intern who had to lug heavy gear around New York City in the sweltering heat of summer…

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