Speaking at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine Barcelona

IRB Barcelona is a world-class research centre devoted to understanding fundamental questions about human health and disease. Richard Gillingwater spoke on Communicating with greater effectcreating a deeper emotional connection with people


We all need to communicate – to share our ideas, work and dreams in order to gain support or persuade others in some way.  You may be leading a team and want people to be aligned around a common goal, or speaking at a conference and looking to make new connections. Or you may simply want to inspire people and get them to think differently about the world around them. Whatever you’re communicating, there’s always a desired outcome and action you want people to take.

So how do you communicate in a way that people don’t just leave with a smile and a polite ‘thank you’? How do you get people to ‘love’ what you are saying so much that they feel compelled to take action? How do you engage with people and motivate them to support you, buy into your ideas and invest in your research? How do you inspire them to join your cause and help your institution grow?

Do you achieve this by explaining facts and providing lots of detail and information? Or by taking people through endless pages of PowerPoint outlining every aspect or detail that you find exciting? Do you just empty the contents of your mind and let people pick over them? Or should you just keep talking until they give in and agree to give you what you want? In fact, none of these approaches is the answer!

As a brand and communications consultant, I’ve been fortunate to work with many different organisations and individuals, helping them to effectively communicate what they do in order to help sell their products and ideas, or even to communicate who they are and what they stand for. I specialise in helping organisations tell their story in such as way as to attract and retain customers and raise funds.

Selling shouldn’t be a dirty word for you. We all do it. Selling means getting people to buy into what you have to offer, whether that’s you or your research. I have learnt that people naturally resist when you speak or communicate to their logical mind. We’re innately cautious creatures designed to fight, flee or freeze when confronted with a potentially threatening situation. So when someone seems to be telling or ‘selling’ us something, we put up barriers and become more critical and end up taking no action. After all it’s better to be safe than sorry!

Before people invest their time and resources in you, they need to trust you, have confidence in you and know you care about their needs. By building an emotional bond with them, you will be able to “sell” something. The stronger the bond, the more they will buy into what you have to offer. That’s true of us as individuals or as organisations. This trust can be built on the spot or over time. Just like when we meet someone for the first time and form an instant liking to that person, or through constant contact we form a deep relationship with someone or an organisation. This feeling of connection helps us navigate in a sea of unknowns. Feelings help us make decisions, to choose one thing over another. Ultimately, how we ‘feel’ has the greatest influence over our behaviour.

“Emotion serves as a cognitive guide and helps adults make decisions every day.” (Goleman, 1997)

So to communicate with greater impact, to sell what we want others to buy, we must become more aware of how we make people feel – either through what we say or do. We need to sense the strength of that feeling and to be aware of the emotions we are generating and whether these are the right ones. Making people feel excited and happy can be great, but if their need is for stability and certainty, then those are the emotions you should be seeking.

“The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.” Donald Calne, Neurologist

Facts, logic, data and evidence are important, but only if and when they support and endorse the right emotions. Numbers can create a sense of confidence and trust. But trust and confidence are only the start – your ticket to play but not to win. To win, you need to fulfil people’s deeper emotional needs, those based on what they value. These emotions lie deep within our subconscious and it is there that the magic really happens.

“Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.” Vincent van Gogh, Artist

But emotions are often the things we are least comfortable talking about. Culturally they are seen as ‘fluffy’ or a sign of weakness. We criticise people for showing them. They are the very things we try to hide from others or let influence our actions; the things least talked about in the boardroom and the things we least understand. Yet it is precisely emotions that help us make decisions every second of every day – who to buy from, who to work for, what to wear, etc. They are the very things that drive effective communication and ultimately business success and the economy.

“If leaders value numbers over emotions, they will not be leaders in their market.” – Dan Hill, Emotionomics: Leveraging emotions for business success

The stats are unequivocal in the world of advertising and communication; we give more money and more support to people, ideas or organisations that we can emotionally relate to. So the deeper our emotional bond with people and the greater the intensity of emotion we make them feel, the more effective we are at communicating.


Three simple steps to more effective communication

Imagine you’re about to meet a potential donor, investor or peer and you want their help or support. Or you may simply have been asked to prepare a speech, attend a meeting or even have to sit a personal appraisal. What should you consider to ensure your communication is more effective (and affective?)?

  1. Always be clear about the outcome you want

What is the intention of your communicating with them? Do you want them to be inspired enough to support you financially, or simply be open to further conversations? It may seem strange to ask such a basic question, but for many of us who are so passionate about what we do, we’re often just happy to share information. However, for communication to be affective (or effective?) there should always be a very clear outcome and purpose. Yes, it’s lovely to be asked to speak at or attend a meeting and we get a buzz from sharing information. However, if we are not clear about the desired outcome and are lost in our own feelings, we are more likely to add too much of the wrong information, ignore what others are feeling and miss key opportunities.

  1. Finding the right emotional trigger

Not all emotions have the same desired outcome on our behaviour. By being more emotionally aware of our feelings and what motivates us, we can learn what drives others. By becoming more ‘emotionally intelligent’, we become more aware of how emotions affect behaviour.

“Emotions play out in the theatre of the body. Feelings play out in the theatre of the mind.” Dr. Sarah Mckay, Neuroscientist

Being emotionally intelligent is not as easy as it sounds, as feelings can be confused with emotions. For example, ‘feeling important’ is not an emotion but a mental construct, an idea, a thought, whereas the emotion behind this thought lies within the body and might be perceived as a warm feeling or as heaviness in the stomach. So to be a good communicator you need to be body conscious and aware of the interplay between thoughts, emotions and behaviours.

  1. Listen, ask questions and tell stories that get people to share their experiences.

To connect with people, you have to make them want to listen to you. Stories are the most powerful way to engage, connect and learn. Storytelling has been the way we have learnt for thousands of years and our brains love sharing stories. Storytelling starts by listening, asking questions and being genuinely interested in the story being told. When people share their experiences they relive (reaffirm?) themselves, their needs and memories through their emotions. This gives you an insight into which emotions are the right triggers for building a deep connection.

“The brain remembers the emotional components of an experience better than any other aspect.” John Medina, Neuroscientist


So whenever you communicate, share ideas or look to influence behaviour in any way, ask yourself this one simple question: how do I need to make people feel in order to achieve a better outcome?

Let me leave you with one final quote:

“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, Author




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