Engage Your Reader’s Emotional Brain

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Engage Your Reader’s Emotional Brain

Inboxes aren’t often exciting places. Neither are the majority of web pages, if we’re honest. This can work to your advantage. Your content will stand out when you can reach your supporter’s emotional brain. This is where motivations are fueled. It’s where decisions are made. It’s where attention spans expand.

Whether you’re writing for an email, a webpage, or a post for social media, emotion is the fuel that will drive actions, inspire shares, and commit important ideas to memory.

Emotion is the fuel that will drive actions, inspire shares, and commit important ideas to memory

Anything that will stir emotions will work here—surprise, intrigue, shock, sadness, joy... Find space for a mix of positive and negative emotional responses across your communications. Avoid focussing solely on negative emotions such as sadness, outrage, and anger—this will fatigue most audiences before long. Remember to replenish your supporter’s emotional reserves with stories of hope and aspiration. Telling your movement story is a great way to do this with authenticity.

Five ways to heighten emotional impact

  1. Focus on experience. What is the lived impact of an issue on those you’re fighting for? Frame the problem around that.
  2. Tell ‘big’ stories through the eyes of an individual. How much we care about something should be proportional to how big the problem is. But we aren’t wired that way. In reality, the more individuals a problem impacts, the less people tend to care. Our brain psychology favors the plight of individuals. This cognitive bias, known as psychic numbing, poses a challenge for advocates who tackle wide-scale problems. Resist relying merely on scale to convey importance; focus on the experiences of individuals instead.

Focus: scale
Millions upon millions of chickens raised for meat will die from lameness before they even reach slaughter age. Birds who can’t walk may suffer painful lesions from contact with feces soaked litter, and may starve without the ability to reach food or water.

Focus: individual
In her short life, a ‘meat’ chicken will struggle to carry the weight of her unnaturally large body. There’s a very real chance her legs may collapse—leading to painful ‘breast blisters’ from constantly lying in feces. Unable to reach food or water, she faces a slow death by starvation.

Visual storytelling can also emote more strongly when the focus of a photo or video allows the viewer to connect with an individual. Choose hero images that draw focus to individuals through composition, closeups, or eye contact. Combine individual-centric visuals with individual-centric messaging to multiply this effect.

  1. Get specific. Master the art of ‘showing, not telling‘ by illustrating your point with concrete examples. For example, if you’re describing the failures of factory farms, don’t just refer to the denial of ‘natural behaviors’—identify the behaviors that animals are denied. Describe the inability to walk; to breathe fresh air; or see sunlight. The less abstract your message, the more it will emote, and the easier it will persuade.
  2. Evoke the senses. Be visceral. Draw on sight, sound, smell, taste, and/or feel to bee-line to the brain’s emotional processors. Not only are the senses a powerful way to evoke an emotional response, they represent one of the undeniable links that unite the human and non-human animal condition. This makes sensory narratives especially valuable to animal advocacy. Is the floor wet? Rough? Cold? Consider the difference between a “lack of fresh air” inside that chicken shed—and—the air being so thick with ammonia that it “burns your eyes and lungs”.
  3. Draw parallels. Nurture your reader’s empathic response by tapping into shared values and shared experiences. For example, universal values such as freedom, safety, and familial bonds will resonate across species. Help your reader recognize the trauma felt by farmed animals by reminding them that their experience of fear, pain, and suffering is the same as that of our beloved cats and dogs. Or go a step further: cutting off a piglet’s tail—through bone—without pain relief—is not unlike severing your little finger. It’s hard to read that without a wince.

Be a storyteller

There’s a reason we teach children important lessons through stories. We’re hardwired to pay attention to them. For thousands of years, this is how we’ve passed on intergenerational information. And our appetite for books, television and movies proves that this is something we never grow out of.

If you need people to understand the moral of your story, tell the story of your moral

Great stories do more than document ‘what happened when’. Sometimes recounting events in chronological order is the least compelling way to tell a story. Consider how different structures can reveal insights, heighten tension, and build emotional investment in the fate of your subject.

The most memorable stories in human history (such as ‘ the hero’s journey’) are repeated in modern culture again and again and again. This is a story you can tell, too. Inspire actions by writing your supporter into your narrative and turning them into the hero of change stories.

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Use emotional arcs

Purely aspirational stories lack consequence; purely negative ones lack hope. A story that connects both outrage and hope will create a ‘pull’ in your reader that you can use to drive action, support, and sharing. By stretching the emotional range in your narrative, you can enhance emotional persuasion.

Action-oriented emotional arcAction-oriented emotional arc

Emotional narrative first. Facts second.

Facts and statistics will struggle to move your audience. That’s because people’s decisions (and opinions) are largely driven by emotions. When making an emotionally persuasive argument, lead with emotional narrative and follow with facts. Facts will rarely convince your reader, however, they will help your reader rationalize and cement their position.

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Karen Nilsen

Hi there! I’m Karen. I’m on a mission to reach my former self. Had I known 10 years ago what I know today, I could have achieved more good, made fewer mistakes, and had more weekends. Every time we share what works, we win faster. Let’s create digital experiences that move people — that grow our base and fuel our movements. Are you with me? Please share this with someone you know who wants to up their digital game!

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