Words are easily forgotten, but feelings and emotions are seared in the minds of everyone. Understanding that is the key to better writing.
A few months ago a remarkable woman died. She was a poet, a dancer, a film producer, a playwright, and a civil rights activist. And she said,
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 knew a thing or two about communication. This idea can cure many communication problems.
Jargon is one of these problems. “Greenhouse gas emissions”, “tort reform”, and “capacity building” is jargon. People don’t understand these phrases. When people don’t understand the language being used it can lead to confusion and distrust. That’s what the audience will remember, not the words.
The alternative is to show empathy. When you show your audience that you understand what they are going through you improve your communication. Show them that your interests are aligned with theirs. Show them that you have a genuine desire to help them understand your message by using language they know.
In global warming that means talking about pollution, people’s health, safety, and job opportunities — it moves conversation from the abstract (or the atmosphere) to the living room. When communicating poverty it means not talking about systemic inequity, entitlements, and trickle down. Instead talk about a rigged game, security, and greed.
Here’s a test. Do you remember these famous speeches?
- “And the glow from that fire can truly light the world”
- “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends”
- “…if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate”
Unless you’re a historian or speechwriter you probably don’t recognize them. They are three of the most memorable speeches of the 20th Century. Almost all the words in these speeches have faded from memory, but it matters little because the feeling that these speeches injected into the listener lives on. The words that followed those lines:
- “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
- “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
- “‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!'”
Yes, these speeches all have an iconic line that lives on, but each line is a slave to the emotions they evoked.
The next time you put words on the page, think first about the emotions you want to stir. Ask what emotions will grab the attention of your audience and compel them to act. When you know the answer to that then you can write. Your email will end up in the bin. You will have to close your remarks. Your ad will go off the air. But the emotion the listener felt will last.
Maya Angelou left us with — amongst other things — a wonderful thought. They are words we should strive to remember.