An audience’s emotions are central to great communication — and taking them into consideration makes it easier for the speaker to take the often-terrifying but necessary step of making him or herself vulnerable, says Wharton management professor Adam Grant in this opinion piece. Grant, the author of the books Option B, Originals and Give and Take, has a free monthly newsletter, GRANTED, that focuses on the intersection of work and psychology; sign up for it at this link: (This article also appeared on LinkedIn.) 

A few days ago, I was standing backstage when my heart started fluttering. That’s not supposed to happen anymore. I’ve given hundreds of speeches in the past few years. But this audience was seriously intimidating. I was supposed to give the opening talk after dinner at the TED staff retreat. These people curate great talks for a living.

I started thinking about what I could do to wow them. But then I remembered something I learned from Mohamed El-Erian, a brilliant economist and the undisputed king of humility among executives.

Mohamed was asked recently to give a speech about the global economy to a group of traders. Just before taking the stage, he was warned by the organizers that the group tended to have a short attention span, had already been drinking at a cocktail reception, and had even thrown bread rolls at one speaker in a prior conference.

When he stepped on stage, he did something unusual. He said “I’m scared.”

Then he told them why. “I’ve heard you wouldn’t be interested or engaged for long. You might be a rowdy audience. And since you threw rolls at a prior speaker, I’m ready to use the front table as a shield.”

Then he said he was ready to put them to sleep with 62 slides.

They laughed. He said he was just kidding and then started telling them not only what he would want to know about the economy if he were in their position, but also how they could think about the world.

They sat riveted for over half an hour. Then, after the 20-minute Q&A period, there were still many hands up.

Mohamed understood that the people who make the best impressions aren’t aiming to impress others. They’re focused on connecting with others. By acknowledging that he was scared, he made himself human and vulnerable. He showed that he cared about what the audience thought of him and understood their perspective.

Good communicators make themselves look smart. Great communicators make their audiences feel smart.

“Good communicators make themselves look smart. Great communicators make their audiences feel smart.”

It took me a while to appreciate how central the audience’s emotions are to communication. Last year, I was preparing to speak at TED when a question from a coach stopped me in my tracks: “What do you want the audience to feel?”

At first I was offended by the question. I don’t want the audience to feel. I want them to think. My favorite definition of persuasion comes from Chris Anderson: “the act of replacing someone’s worldview with something better.” I was hoping to reason with the audience’s worldview, not emote with it.

But looking back, I can’t think of a more important question about communication. On issues that people hold dear, to change what they believe, you have to change what they want to believe. That means I had to appeal to passion and reason (if you’re a disciple of Hume), pathos and logos (if you’re an Aristotelian), heart and mind (if you’re a speaker of plain English).

So I sat down begrudgingly (only later did I lament that I was emoting) to decide what I wanted my audience to feel. Inspired? No. I’m a teacher, not a preacher. Leave inspiration to gurus leading people on spirit walks across hot coals and then trying to inspire their second-degree burns to heal in a flash. Confident? Definitely not; too Stuart Smalley. Moved? Nope, not comfortable with anyone breaking down into tears.

Eventually I settled on three emotions: surprised, fascinated and amused. It’s probably not a coincidence that these are my three favorite emotions to feel when I’m sitting in an audience — we all want to deliver the talks we most love to watch. Surprise appeals to me because we learn the most when our assumptions are challenged. It also resonates because I used to be a magician (though my wife is fond of reminding me of a Family Guy mantra: magicians are on the second-to-last rung of the hierarchy of entertainers, right between ventriloquists and mimes). Fascination matters because it means we’re not just awake but jazzed to learn more. As for amusement, laughter is as much fun to give as receive — and it’s also the most audible and visceral cue that the audience is on board.

The cardinal rule of humor at work is to make fun of yourself, not others. Self-deprecating requires vulnerability. So I started making a list of my favorite moments of vulnerability. The entrepreneur who included a slide in his pitch deck on the reasons not to invest. The job applicant who was underqualified for a position but landed it after her cover letter opened, “I’m probably not the candidate you’ve been envisioning.” And the American president who was accused in a debate by his opponent of being two-faced. As the story goes, Lincoln replied, “If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?”

Earlier this week, when I was nervous about my talk to the TED staff, I asked myself what Mohamed El-Erian would do. He wouldn’t be afraid of telling the audience that he’s afraid.

So I walked onstage and opened, “If there’s one thing more nerve-wracking than speaking at TED, it’s speaking to TED.”

The audience laughed. It broke the ice and put me at ease.

Considering what you want your audience to feel makes vulnerability less terrifying. It’s not about you. It’s about them.