The human mind – especially the unconscious human mind – is still mostly a mystery to us, its owner. Neuroscience is helping to push back the boundaries of puzzlement; however, we have a long way to go.

Psychology professor Adele Goldberg at Princeton University is doing her bit to help increase our understanding. In part, her research focuses on everyday metaphors and the effect that they have on our brains. For example, she’s found that if you say, “that was a sweet comment,” it will activate your taste centers and your amygdalae – the twin sections of your brain that are involved in decision-making, emotions, and memory.

Apparently our unconscious minds are quite literal, and if you tell them something is sweet, they get almost as excited as if you were waving an ice cream sundae under their figurative noses.

What this unconscious response suggests is that the language we use – or fail to use – as speakers is incredibly important in directing the responses of our audiences and increasing their engagement in our messages.

If you’re a regular speaker – a pro, a regular speaker because of your job, an academic who lectures to undergraduates – then you’ve had the experience at least once of looking out at your audience and noticing, with a sinking heart, that they don’t seem thrilled by what you’re saying right that moment. I hope for your sake this deflating moment has only occurred once or at least very infrequently.

I remember quite clearly trying to get my university students excited one Spring term about Shakespeare’s history plays and noticing a decided lack of enthusiasm. In fact, some of them complained that Shakespeare’s language was too difficult and strange to understand. I refrained from telling them that I was working with a group of middle-schoolers (age 10 and 11) to put on a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the evenings who were not put off by Shakespeare’s language at all. To the contrary, they were playing with the language, experimenting with varying ways to say their lines with gusto, and simply looking up anything that wasn’t familiar to them.

Now I know that I should have immediately upped the metaphor count in my lecture, using phrases derived from the five senses, talking about sweet lines, loud opinions, beautiful phrases, soft poetry, and smelly scenes. Had I done so, I would have at least woken up their unconscious minds and engaged their emotions, memories, and decision-making faculties in a more energetic way.

You can do the same with your audiences. Reach for a metaphor. Put all the language of the senses to work in your speeches. I referred in an earlier blog post to a study that found that people become more empathetic to other people’s pain if you get them to put their hands on rough sandpaper.

We do indeed seem to be quite literal-minded in the inner workings of our minds. So tap into these connections when you deliver a speech. Especially if it’s one that is particularly intellectual, or difficult – say a scientific paper or a health-care treatise on the relative success rates of different kinds of drug delivery systems. By paying attention to the metaphorical level of the language you use, you can make yourself much more engaging for your audience of (unconscious) listeners.


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