Let's Get ... Emotional?!?
Hello friends,

I'm so sorry for the Olivia Newton-John pun. I was raised in the age of Xanadu.

(In case you're wondering, "Let's Get Physical" is the refrain from an Olivia Newton-John song that played in repeat in the early 80s. And Xanadu is an Olivia Newton-John movie. I've never actually seen it. It was rated PG. And much to my dismay, I was too young to actually watch it.)
Abstract neon lights photo that vaguely reminds me of a movie I've never seen by Bruno Thethe on Unsplash.
Anyway, I've been steeped in some really emotional stories lately. Some are stories I'm making. Some I'm story editing. And many are stories I'm evaluating as part of a judging thing.

Let's just say, I've recently heard enough sad stories to make a less optimistic person feel depressed.

But I haven't been sobbing into my morning tea. Instead, I've spent most of the past few weeks thinking about all the ways we sabotage the emotion in our stories.

So I thought I'd make a list of the mistakes many of us are making when it comes to emotion.

And…more importantly, what we can do instead.
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Don't Lead with Your Big, Emotional Moment

Yes, yes. I know.

I'm always telling you to consider an "e" structure.

(As a reminder, an "e" is when you start your story with an important moment. And then you go back and explain how we got here.)

Most stories need to convey a whole bunch of slightly boring biographical information before revving up the action. And using an "e" structure can really help to ensure that the listener sticks with you through the less exciting parts.

But you need to be careful with it. You want to pick a moment that's interesting and important enough to grab the listener's attention.

But you don't want to start with an emotion that hasn't been "earned" yet.

Emotion without context can feel manipulative. It can feel cheesy. It can feel awkward.
Instead…Build Up to the Good Stuff

If you want to make your listener feel something, you're gonna have to "earn" your emotions.

I need to know who this person is. What was at stake. And why this moment was so emotional for them.

Often, I need to have been brought along as that person experiences a moment of tension.

The uncomfortable feeling as something dreaded approaches.

The tingle of anticipation when something good is on the horizon.

Or even... the utter shock when something completely unexpected happens.

It's really important that you take a beat to sit in the uncertainty that precedes a big, emotional moment. It gives the listener a reason to care.

And just to be clear, I'm not saying you can't start a story with emotion. I'm just saying that – in most cases – you shouldn't start with your MOST emotional moment.

Big emotions need to be earned.

Every. Single. Time.
Don't Explain After the Fact

Okay, so have you ever listened to a friend tell a "funny" story. Except, it wasn't actually funny?

And then, when they get to the end, they say something like, "It's funny, because…"

Yeah. That doesn't work.

Even after they explain, you're still not going to laugh. You're gonna shake your head and wonder why your friend told you such a stupid story in the first place.

The emotion of the moment has been spoiled. There's no going back to fix it.

The same is true of your stories.

If you have to go back and explain why someone just got all choked up (or started crying, or started laughing hysterically) you're gonna lose your listener. And you're never going to be able to bring them back into that emotional moment, no matter how hard you try.
Instead…Set the Groundwork

Most of the people you interview are going to tell their story out of order. It's just human nature.

They'll tell you about an important moment. And then they'll realize that they forgot to tell you a bunch of little things that explain why that moment was so meaningful.

I don't worry about that too much during the interview. I let the person tell their story in whatever order makes the most sense to them.

They laugh when they think something is funny. Their voice might crack when they reach a moment that was really hard.

But after the emotion of the moment has passed, I'll ask them to go back and explain anything that needs explaining.

Maybe it's as simple as telling me a person's name.

Maybe it's more complicated, like explaining a government policy or a scientific process.

And then, when I structure my story, I'm careful to insert those details first. So that when the emotion hits, the listener understands why it was such a big deal.
Don't Use Adjectives

Okay, this one is going to be controversial, but I stand by my choice.

It's really easy to go wrong when you're using adjectives.

For one, your idea of "horrible" and the listener's idea of "horrible" might not be the same.

One person's "tragedy" might be another person's "inconvenience."

Adjectives -- and nouns derived from adjectives -- are completely subjective. And they can be a lot to live up to.

If you tell the listener that you're going to tell them a "hilarious" story, they're gonna be disappointed if the story is merely "funny."

If you say that the thing that happens next is "unimaginably awful," they're gonna start stacking it up against the most awful things they can imagine.

Most importantly, adjectives can feel manipulative. They can feel like you're telling the listener how to feel.

And let's face it, it's almost never a good idea to tell people how to feel.
Instead…Let the Story Carry the Emotion

Use sparse, clear language. The more emotional the story, the more sparse your language should be.

Go into detail. Give me everything I need to decide for myself how to feel.

Don't tell me that a story is funny. Tell me a funny story.

Don't explain that a person was being treated unfairly. Show me examples of unfair treatment.

And then, ask the person at the center of the story to explain how the moment made them feel. Did they laugh? Did they cry?

And then, maybe. Just maybe. Consider telling the listener how the story made YOU feel.

Though, I'd be careful with that. Unless you're Dax Shepard, I probably don't care how you feel.
Don't Let the Storyteller Go on Autopilot

Ugh. There's nothing worse than when the person you're interviewing starts to sound rehearsed. Detached. Like they're telling the story for the 1000th time.

Truth is – we're often interviewing people about the most impactful moments of their lives. And we're usually not the first person they've told about it.

But if you find yourself interviewing someone who sounds like they're on a different planet than the emotion in their story, you can't just let that go.
Instead…Slow It Down

I feel like I mention this one in every workshop I teach, because it's so darn useful.

My favorite way to combat autopilot is by asking for more details.

These details don't have to be important. In fact, it's best if they're not!

Like…when a man was telling me about proposing to his girlfriend while out for a Sunday run, I asked how he hid a ring in a pair of running shorts.

Did I actually care how he hid a ring in a pair of running shorts?

Not really.

Asking an unexpected question can break a person out of autopilot and get them back into the emotion of the moment.

If that doesn't work, consider calling it out. "You know, it sounds like you've told this story a LOT of times. Does it still affect you?"

Sometimes, that'll be enough to inspire a real, emotional response.
But...Be Careful Not to Re-Traumatize

This is where interviewing for emotion gets really tricky. We're sometimes asking people to tell us about the very worst moments of their lives. And that's not easy.

Not for us. And definitely not for them.

So, you gotta read the room. If someone's really struggling, don't push them to continue.

And consider going into these kinds of interviews with some ground rules.

First, I never pressure someone into doing an emotional interview.

Okay, I'll be honest. I almost never pressure anyone into doing any kind of interview. I'm just not that kind of journalist. But if the subject is emotional, I'm extra careful to let the person know that they have a choice.

I'll usually remind people at the beginning of the interview that they don't have to answer any question that makes them uncomfortable.

Obviously, you're not gonna want to say this to a politician who's defending their latest bad decision. But for most narrative interviews, this is perfectly fine.

And then, I just take a deep breath and ask for what I need.

Don't beat around the bush. Don't try to avoid the touchy subjects until the end.

Don't make it weird.

Empathize. But don't make it all about you.

Steer the conversation. But don't try to control it.

The most emotional interviews I've ever done have been with people who are really motivated to talk. They want others to learn about what happened to them. They're hoping to do some good by sharing their story.

So I treat these interviews as collaborations. I am working with this person to help them present their story in the clearest, most impactful way.

I acknowledge that they might not be comfortable sharing all the details I'd want them to share. And that's okay.

I trust them to be open and honest. To tell me the details they're comfortable sharing. To hold back things that might be too painful.

And in return, they trust me with their story.

They trust me to mold it. Shape it. Leave out unnecessary details. Find the details that make it shine.

Because it's their job to tell me the story.

It's my job to make it good.
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