Career & Success

Feelings First: How Emotion Shapes Our Communication, Decisions, and Experiences

In this episode, we discuss how recognizing your audience’s emotional needs can help you achieve your communication goals.

November 20, 2020

“Something like 90 to 95% of our decisions and behaviors are constantly being shaped non-consciously by the emotional brain system.”

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Professor of Marketing Baba Shiv sits down with lecturer and host Matt Abrahams to share his research on how emotions affect our, and our audience’s, decision making. “You’ve got to pay careful attention to the audience that you’re talking to and allow the person to talk,” Shiv says. “Allow the person to talk because then, the person has ownership of the idea.”



Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: I don’t know about you, but in my mind, I am amazingly eloquent. But when I open my mouth I’m not always so lucky. Today, we are all lucky because we will explore communication best practices that come from neuroscience.

Hello, I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. I am so excited to be joined by Baba Shiv who is a professor of Marketing at the GSB. Baba has done extensive work on emotion and motivation in shaping decisions and experiences. Welcome, Baba.

Baba Shiv: Yeah, thanks, Matt. Thanks, it’s a pleasure to be here with you.

Matt Abrahams: Great. One thing I and other love about working with and learning from you, Baba, is your amazing energy and passion for what you do. I love forward to an energetic and educational conversation. Shall we get started?

Baba Shiv: Absolutely, let’s do it.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. So, you’re a neuroscientist by training. Can you help us understand how you approach studying the topics you explore especially, when it comes to communication?

Baba Shiv: Yeah, the fundamental premise, this is based in all the evidence out there that most of human decisions and human behaviors are shaped by emotion and not by reason. And then, if you ask me to put a number to this based on all the evidence out there I would conjecture something like 90 to 95 percent of our decisions, our behaviors are constantly being shaped non-consciously by emotional brain system.

Matt Abrahams: Wow.

Baba Shiv: You know, if you think about it from that lens and for communication the first thing to do is to play in to the emotional brain rather than the rational brain. That’s the fundamental premise when it comes to neuroscience and communication.

Matt Abrahams: So, when we think about what it is we want to say, and who we want to say it to, and how we want to say it you’re saying lead with thoughts about emotion and really plan from the emotional perspective. Is that what I’m hearing?

Baba Shiv: That’s right, and the basic idea is that if you look at most people, what they do when they’re trying to persuade others and they’re trying to [impress others], communicate to others they present rational arguments. And you can see this happening time and time again. They’ll be a 30-slide deck packed with numbers, and charts, and so on.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Baba Shiv: And then, we fail to recognize that the rational bit accounts for only about five to 10 percent of human decisions. I’m not saying you can ignore the rational side. You have to provide enough fodder for the rational brain to be rational. But first and foremost, you need to play in to what the emotional brain is looking for, and that will actually depend upon the mindset of the individual. Is that person in a risk/rewards type of mindset or a risk-tolerant type II mindset? And these are terms that I’ve borrowed from statistics. We all know about the type I error and the type II error. The type I error is a fear of making a mistake. Type II error is the fear of missing out on opportunities. Actually, it’s not a fear. It’s actually a desire for new opportunity.

So, to figure out what kind of state your brain is in, what mindset it is because the brain has two separate circuitries. One for risk-adverse behaviors and one for risk-tolerant behaviors. And to really understand where that person is in these mindsets, if it’s a type I or a type II and then, play in to that.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, that’s really fascinating. So, we have spent a lot of time across the various episodes of this podcast in different ways talking about getting to know your audience. But I like how you’re distinguishing this between a type I and type II. What are some of the things you look for or could ask to ascertain where your audience is in terms of the way they approach your communication?

Baba Shiv: So many different things. One is, for example, the time of day really matters. When we wake up in the morning our serotonin levels are at their peak. I’d be happy to talk more about that as we go along. And so, if it’s in the morning you know that that person’s brain is much more open to new ideas because the brain is more likely to be in a type II mindset. Assuming, of course, that the person has a good night’s rest. You’re [able to] function.

Later on during the day, serotonin levels are going to decline which means that that person is going to shift more to the type I side. Which means that if it’s going to be in the afternoon I want to weave in to the communication things that will bring about comfort. And then, the way to switch the brain in to a more open, risk-tolerant mindset is to first and foremost, bring in a state of comfort to the brain. So, how do you do that? You weave in the familiar. Familiarity means a lot of comfort to the brain.

It could be trust. Tried and trusted. That brings a lot of comfort to the brain. It could be validation. Testimonials. I’m not the only one saying this. There are other people saying this. And, of course, the other techniques that we can use, and we can talk about this as we go along is to induce laughter. Laughter is one of the fastest ways to alleviate stress and get the person’s brain in to a more risk-tolerant type of mindset.

Matt Abrahams: So, it sounds to me like based on what you’ve just shared is early in the morning, that’s a great time to do brainstorming and position new ideas. And later in the afternoon is when you tell your jokes, and you try to build trust and comfort.

Baba Shiv: That’s right.

Matt Abrahams: Is that what I’m hearing?

Baba Shiv: That’s right.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah, we actually recently, in a recent episode dove in to the value of humor in communication, and you’re exactly right. It really accelerates people’s openness and willingness to listen. That’s great. I love that you’re talking about how the context influences communication and addresses or influences immediately somebody’s receptivity to your messages.

Baba Shiv: That’s right. Matt Abrahams: So, in researching this episode, and it was a lot of fun. You do lots of interesting work in varied domains. I came across an old GSB Insights article, and it was entitled, “The Art of the Imperfect Pitch.” Can you share with us best practices you’ve learned in your research that can help us persuade others beyond what we’ve already talked about?

Baba Shiv: Well, I’m happy to share that. So, this is called the “IKEA” Effect. “IKEA” Effect is the –

Matt Abrahams: Like IKEA where I go to get my furniture and then, get frustrated putting it together?

Baba Shiv: Yeah, exactly that, yeah. Yeah, yeah, the IKEA store. It is IKEA within quotes, by the way, because it’s actually like assembling the furniture. Sometimes, it’s frustrating.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.


Baba Shiv: [Unintelligible] is that whenever the brain perceives that it is making an investment in something ‒ it could be mental, it could be physical, it could be monetary ‒ the brain gets invested in it. So, this along with another observation that comes from my teaching at the Design School at Stanford, the Design School has a mechanical engineering section where the prototypes coming out will all be polished because they have 3-D printers, et cetera.

And the other section is what we call the [hot] section which would be aluminum foil [unintelligible] so, the prototypes are going to be rough. And what is fascinating is that time, and time again, and backing up the research I’m doing right now is that if you present a polished prototype others will only find flaws. If you present a rough prototype others will see potential.

Matt Abrahams: Wow.

Baba Shiv: So, the way we think about this is in the very early stages of an idea. If you want to influence a stakeholder just go to the person with a rough prototype. Back of the napkin, on a whiteboard, whatever it is and seek advice. When the person starts providing advice [unintelligible] then, your idea will become that person’s baby as well. The most effective way of persuading people if it’s for the person you want to persuade, persuade himself or herself.

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Baba Shiv: That’s the most effective way because if the person believes that it is her own idea or his own idea then, you know the person is going to trust, is going to be familiar because who does the person trust the most?

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Baba Shiv: Right? So, that’s also consistent with the saying that Matt, you might be familiar with in Silicon Valley. There’s this famous saying that, “If you’re a [stock-up], and you go to an investor for money you’re only going to get advice. If you go for advice you’re going to get money.” Matt Abrahams: Yes, absolutely. So, many of our students, many of the people I coach, and I’m sure you come across want to get the pitch just right. They want it to be perfect. And what I’m hearing from you especially, early on is it’s less about perfection and more about being open, and direct, and seeking feedback, and advice. That’s what’s really going to help you.

Baba Shiv: That’s right, and there’s a related phenomenon here. Now, of course, it cannot be used in all context. I want the listeners to be really careful about this is that if you’re only going to be reporting out then, an imperfect pitch can actually backfire. But again, it depends on the goal of the communication. If you want to persuade others there’s a related phenomenon called the “hairy arm phenomenon.” I don’t know, Matt, if you’re familiar with this.

Matt Abrahams: Hairy arms like hair on your arms? Okay.

Baba Shiv: Yeah, hairy arm, and it’s an apocryphal story where an advertising executive makes the picture-perfect pitch to a client. Picture-perfect pitch. And at the end of the pitch the client goes, “Let me think about it.” So, the executive goes to the boss and says, “Boss, what happened?” And then, “This was the picture-prefect pitch.” And the boss says, “You made it too perfect.”

Well, you’re making the pitch [unintelligible] the person goes and wants to contribute, wants to come in, and is not able to contribute, and therefore, is left with this feeling that, “There must be something wrong, but I’m not able to put my finger on it so, let me delay it. Let me think about it.” So, that’s why it called a hairy arm is the boss says that, “Hey, you know that the pitch that you made showcasing the ad campaign? At the end you have this person holding the product. Make that person’s arm hairy.” So, the client is going to say, “Oh, I like this. Oh, I see the hairy arm. Get rid of that, and you’re fine.”

Matt Abrahams: I see. Perfect. So, you give them something to look at. I love that story.

Baba Shiv: But an important thing to remember is does anyone want to start with the hairy arm at the beginning of the pitch? [Unintelligible] first impressions matter a whole lot. And so, you don’t want to start off coming across as being incompetent in the beginning, but if you want to leave a small amount of an imperfect [unintelligible] out there you’d do much better at selling [unintelligible].


Matt Abrahams: I see. So, I’m wondering. To me, it strikes me that this approach would not only help with persuasion, but even in giving feedback, for example. Many of us when we give feedback we fixate on saying it just right so the person is likely to change the behavior or the approach that they have. It might make sense to seek their input, or their guidance, or invite them to participate so that they become more invested in it.

Baba Shiv: Right.

Matt Abrahams: Aha.

Baba Shiv: Correct. And the other thing also, and Matt, you’re an expert at this one is that to be a good communicator you have to be a good listener. What I mean by listening is that it’s not just the oratory part of it, but you’ve got to pay careful attention to the audience that you’re talking to. And allow the person to talk. Allow the person to talk because then, the person has ownership of the idea.

Matt Abrahams: Right. Yeah, there’s a lot of research, as you might be aware, that talk time matters and fostering trust. And feeling a sense of involvement, and engagement comes from the other person talking more than you do if that’s your goal. To get them more engaged and feeling trusting so, listening is important for sure.

Baba Shiv: Listening is important and also, having what is top of mind for you? What is giving sleepless nights to you? Then, you’re going to get their sense of where you’re coming from and how I can be of help. I cannot guarantee that I will be able to come up with suggestions that are the best suggestions out there, but at least I can serve as a sounding board for you and then, figure out if I can help you out.

Matt Abrahams: Right, so, it’s making invitations and offers to help and also, learning what’s important for the other to get them talking so, you could actually have something to listen to. So, I like that a lot, and this is a nice bridge to my next question which on this podcast we’ve talked a lot about changing our behavior to better hone our communication. What are some other useful techniques that we can use to attain the goals we have especially, when it comes to communication change?

Baba Shiv: First and foremost, in my opinion, the tactic is go for any practice that will destress you. And this can range from, in some case, just taking some deep breaths. It could be visualizing the audience and visualizing the other person being very receptive. It could be laughter. You don’t need real laughter. Even fake laughter will destress you. The reason that is important is because if you don’t do that, if you’re not in the right state, and what I mean by right state if you’re stressed then, your brain tends to adopt frames that are much more risk-adverse. And it doesn’t allow you to experiment because you’re coming out of fear. So, the main tactic I’ll say is just feel comfortable in your own skin. Are you comfortable out there or are you still stressed? Because sometimes, you don’t know that.

So, that’s where practices like meditation is so very crucial. Not just for health reasons, but also, for communication reasons. To be a good communicator your brain needs to be a lot more resilient to stress. Matt, you have done this talking to an audience, and what will happen is that when you want to crack a joke, and this has been part of what you plan to do, and you get in to a stressful situation the joke will fall flat.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, yeah.

Baba Shiv: Right?

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Baba Shiv: So, some of the things I’ll do is that I’ll do the [unintelligible]. “Oh, I’m going to tell you a joke.” I laugh myself before I tell the joke and then, people will start giggling because it’s a natural human tendency if someone is laughing you get to laugh yourself. And then, I’ll crack the joke so, there are these kind of techniques, but the most important thing I believe is that of course, you need to know your audience.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Baba Shiv: That is the first thing you’ve got to know, and you probably have been mentioning this time and time again.

Matt Abrahams: We have.

Baba Shiv: But I’m a big believer that the most critical factor here is you are in a state of comfort.

Matt Abrahams: Right, and we’ve talked about this. Interestingly, we’ve had a couple guests, Christian being one of them who you teach with and Dan Kline, who I know you know. When it comes to this improvisational mindset and really, the logic is the same. We get in our own way through our anxiety and the pressure we put on ourselves. And if we can actually learn to relax that allows us to achieve our goal much more readily and be much more present-oriented, too.

Baba Shiv: That’s right, and you’ve got to understand that the way the brain is working is all these instinctual brain systems are shaping. And if you are stressed then, what happens is that it will completely shape the frame that you’re adopting about the audience, about your content, et cetera. And your body language is also going to tell.

A lot of our ability to persuade, as we all know, is not just dependent upon what we are saying, but how we are saying it. And so, if you’re not in that state it is going to show. It is going to show.

Matt Abrahams: Right, the tells that we’ve revealed, for sure. I have enjoyed so much getting some of your tips. I’m wondering, do you have any other tips that we haven’t discussed that you think might help us be more effective communicators? Baba Shiv: Absolutely. So, if it is going to be a very important piece of a thing, you’re giving a talk to an audience, a large audience out there I would just say go to bed early, as you often do. Get a good night’s rest. Don’t sacrifice on sleep. I know people are doing this, that. They will keep on practicing the talk, and all through the night, and they get about three hours of sleep before they’ve got to talk.

If you’ve not had a good night’s rest guess what? Your brain chemicals are going to be such that you are going to be risk-adverse. You’ll then adopt a frame of mind where your brain is already thinking about failure, and that’s the wrong state to be in. I would always advise ‒ and if you didn’t get a good night’s rest that could happen.

And in your traveling Matt, you do this, and I have done this. You’ve traveled across time zones, and you can get in to jet lag and stuff like that. So, one of the things I very quickly do if I’m doing that is first and foremost, what I do is I’ll order food that is comfort food for me.

Matt Abrahams: Huh, okay.

Baba Shiv: Right? So, for me, it is growing up in India, and you talk to most Indians it is yogurt rice. So, I will just go order some plain rice, get some yogurt, plain yogurt, mix it up and have it because you need to have that comfort, right?

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Baba Shiv: And food brings a lot of comfort. And then, if I’m not able to get to sleep that night I will go for a run in the morning because running also within about 15 minutes of a run serotonin levels, some of the chemicals in the brain will increase and then, you get in to the right kind of a state when you’re giving the talk.

Matt Abrahams: Great. I love that. Any excuse to eat my comfort foods I’ll take so, I’m now going to tell everybody, “Baba told me to.”

Baba Shiv: Even if it is unhealthy a little bit of it won’t hurt.


Matt Abrahams: Right, and I know you’re in fantastic shape. I don’t know if you remember one of the first times you and I met we went for a walking meeting, and I thought we were walking, but you’re walking pace is a lot faster than mine.

Baba Shiv: And right, I call it the talk. Talk and a walk.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Baba Shiv: And [unintelligible] everything [unintelligible] ‒


Matt Abrahams: It’s more like twog because you’re jogging or at least I was behind you, but before we end, Baba, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone who joins me. Are you up for that?

Baba Shiv: Oh, yeah, of course. Matt Abrahams: Excellent. So, if you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received as a five to seven-word presentation slide title what would it be?

Baba Shiv: The advice I got from a boss when I first got in to sales. Technical selling. He said, “Just be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else.”

Matt Abrahams: It’s much harder to be someone else, for sure. And I can see how that would be comforting and reduce your stress level. If you’re trying to put on a face or a front that would be definitely stressful.

Baba Shiv: That’s right.

Matt Abrahams: Right. I’m very curious about this. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Baba Shiv: Oh, so many people that I admire. So, can I mention two names?

Matt Abrahams: For you, yes.

Baba Shiv: Oh, thank you, Matt. And they’re very different in terms of styles and so on. So, you are from the Midwest, I think. Your wife is from the Midwest.

Matt Abrahams: Correct.

Baba Shiv: One is Warren Buffet.

Matt Abrahams: Of course.

Baba Shiv: A different style. Communication style. Very friendly. Open, honest, just actually speaking his mind, but what that come out of his mouth are things that you just want to write down and keep repeating all the time, right?

Matt Abrahams: Right, yeah. They move markets.

Baba Shiv: And they do move markets.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Baba Shiv: And the second one is the person I admire a lot is Winston Churchill. I’m a history buff, and when you go through his communication, the speeches that he gave oh, my god, and you can see, and you can actually go to some of the libraries and see how he worked on his speeches.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, yeah.

Baba Shiv: He would go and redraft, redraft, redraft it and then, even intonations to be made. Where. He will actually have these, “This is where I have to emphasize things.” Imagine he just moved a nation and actually moved the nations of the world to fight what was going to be a very dark period in our history. And just to think about how he inspired a nation to actually fight and not give up is incredible, if you think about it.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, absolutely, and I encourage anybody who wants to learn more. The history of his oration and learning to be a good communicator is an example of just pure tenacity and really working to be better because he did not start off where he ended up. Let me ask question number three. What are the first three ingredients that go in to a successful communication recipe from your perspective?

Baba Shiv: Communication recipe? Okay, okay, so, if I have to use the cooking metaphor I would first say know who you are cooking for. Know your audience.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Baba Shiv: Second is, “Do you have the right ingredients?” And the third is, “Are you excited about it?”

Matt Abrahams: Right. So, I love that, and I like that you related it to the question very specifically. When you say right ingredients you’re talking about make sure you’re in the right frame? Your audience is in the right frame?

Baba Shiv: Correct.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Very good.

Baba Shiv: And also, in terms of the content and how, when the content has been done because in terms of cooking there is a recipe to be followed.

Matt Abrahams: Right, sure.

Baba Shiv: And each person has their own recipe over a period of time of how to be effective as a communicator. We all develop our own, and if you’re not you’ve got to become self-aware of the recipe for your success. So, go back to the times when you were very effective as a communicator. Very proud of and ask yourself, “What did you do there, and what did you not do to make that effective?” So, it is a recipe kind of thing, and each person has his or her own recipe. Don’t try to adopt someone else’s recipe. Of course, learn from the experts because the experts have already done it. You don’t have to relearn the whole thing, but then, you adapt that recipe to your own style.

Matt Abrahams: That is so important. That taking time to reflect, I think, is so critical in any skill you’re trying to develop, but especially, communication.

Baba Shiv: Right.

Matt Abrahams: So, Baba, this has been wonderful. Thank you so much. I knew we would learn a lot from you, and we would have a lot of fun. And I am going to go make myself some macaroni and cheese now. My favorite comfort food. And we really appreciate you sharing your perspective on communication and how neuroscience can help us be better, more effective communicators. Thanks again.

Baba Shiv: Thank you, Matt. It was a delight. Thank you very much.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you for listening to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. A production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. To learn more go to Please download other episodes wherever you find your podcasts.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

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