Volume 14, 
August, 2016


Get Everyone to Sweat With You
Emotion as a key to creating change


Sheila Mello

It’s no longer headline news that emotion plays a role in decision making, even in business. How can you take advantage of this fact to help people in your organization understand customers at a deep, intuitive level? 


One of the first rules aspiring creative writers learn is show, don’t tell. Why? Consider the difference between:

John was nervous. He was about to give a big presentation and he was trying to get the AV setup to work.


The cord kept slipping through John’s sweaty fingers. He tried plugging it in one slot, then in the other, but the video screen remained blank. He glanced at his watch. The auditorium doors would open in less than 15 minutes and the shareholders would begin coming in—not to mention the board members and his boss.

Powerful, specific writing—with details that bring the reader into the scene—evokes powerful emotions. If you’re like most people, you felt more when you read the second passage. You may even feel more inclined to take an action on John’s behalf. 

Now imagine your task isn’t writing about connecting a computer before an important meeting but getting your team excited about your pilot project. Is there a business equivalent of powerful writing that could help you stir the emotions of your colleagues?

The answer is yes. I’ve seen the magic happen as part of the work we do to help our clients understand their customers. Read on to learn a few “show, don’t tell” tricks that can help you engage people in your organization on an emotional level so they’ll join you in instigating—and sustaining—change.

Three ways to make people feel

Let’s go back to that still-empty auditorium. But now you’re part of the development team charged with designing the next generation of video connector and John, the sweaty-palmed presenter, is your customer.

1. Get as close as you can to the customer’s emotional experience. While you can’t do your customers’ jobs for them (which would certainly give you an extremely immersive experience of what it’s like to be them), you can listen carefully to the stories they tell about what it’s like to do their jobs. You can create an interview process specifically designed to elicit the powerful, specific details that help you  feel the sweat on John’s hands as he tries to find the right slot for his video hookup. You can use an approach that captures his anxiety in a much more visceral way than just having him report “I was nervous.” 

2. Think beyond marketing. Open-ended interviews, probing questions, and plenty of space for customers to share what’s important to them without prompting creates a “storytelling space” where customers can take you to places you wouldn’t have thought to ask about. Too often, even companies that focus on this kind of interviewing fail to give the experience to anyone beyond the marketing department. Invite into those storytelling sessions—otherwise known as customer interviews—not only the marketing department but everyone who has a stake in the outcome: staff from manufacturing, product management, engineering, quality control, purchasing. They need to get emotional too.

3. Involve everyone in the next steps. It’s easy for marketing to distill the data from customer interviews and create a report telling the rest of the team that 76 percent of users have difficulty connecting components. But how emotionally compelling is that? When a cross-functional team gathers to distill the stories and prioritize user challenges, the data gets real—and emotional. I’ve seen a senior development engineer standing in front of two sticky notes, each representing a different customer need, agonizing over which one to eliminate. Prioritizing requirements is a routine part of product definition, but when developments feel John’s pain, they have a real sense of what it means to pick one requirement over another.

Building an emotional response into your product definition process may not be easy or comfortable. After all, we’re conditioned by hundreds of years of cultural devotion to “rational” thought. But neuroscience research supports the idea that emotions play a larger role in our lives and decision making than we once thought. When you marry emotions with data, you’ve got a powerful recipe for igniting passion in your company. 

And you might create the next can’t-live-without product that lets John plug in without a struggle, ace his presentation, and shine in the eyes of his coworkers and managers.

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