Does this post push any buttons with you?


I was visiting my sister many years ago and my young nephew was in the room playing happily on the floor with his toys. As we chatted, a radio tuned to Radio 4 played quietly in the background. Suddenly the theme tune for the Archers came on and something extraordinary happened. My nephew stopped playing with his toys, leapt up as if electrocuted and started to dance in time with the music. I looked at my sister with raised eyebrows and she explained that he always did this when that particular piece of music came on – he found it irresistible. As soon as the music faded out, my nephew flopped back onto the floor and continued to play with his toys as if nothing had happened.

I remember this incident because it was the most vivid demonstration of a Pavlovian response that I had ever seen from a human being. Presumably, if we’d had a recording of the music we could have played it over and over and again and my nephew would have responded to it in exactly the same way – dancing with complete abandon.

It was like he had a button inside of him that could be triggered by the music.

Since that time I’ve noticed music having an equally powerful effect on some of my adult friends; when certain tracks are played, they have to get up and dance (where appropriate).

It must be common then to have a set of buttons in our brains that are mostly beyond the reach of the rational part of it and these buttons only need to be pressed with the right stimuli to make us ‘dance’ in a particular way. These buttons vary, of course, from person to person and the combinations will differ depending on many factors but they do exist in each of us. Music is an obvious example but there are other stimuli that can produce similar results – aromas, sounds (like birdsong), texture, objects and of course, stories. Movies combine as many of these buttons as they can (yes, sometimes even with aromas) to produce a compelling narrative. When the story is also ‘true’, as with a documentary, the effect on us can be devastating – just watch any crisis appeal to see how moving they can be.

These stories aren’t powerful by accident—the creators have learned that we are machines with pre-programmed algorithms that can be activated with the right stimuli and thus we can be controlled to a certain extent. This is why pictures of cats dominate the Internet, why vulnerable children provoke the strongest emotional response in most people and why stories of great sacrifice affect us deeply. On a much larger scale we see this button-pressing being exploited by propagandists; they know that certain stimuli will provoke a certain response from a certain group of people – so a picture of ‘x’ depicting the use of ‘y’ will probably produce an angry response from the ‘z’ demographic of society and move them to action, etcetera. If you need convincing of just how predictable we are, read Influence by Robert Cialdini.

Of course, we’re probably the most sophisticated machines ever to exist in the universe so we’re not simple robots but at the heart of it, we still have a set of buttons that literally, move us in some way – shocked by surprise, we will jump in response every single time.

As a professional speaker I’ve made it my business to study these buttons, as I need to know how to employ them during my presentations in order to achieve a particular set of responses. And as emotion is the most powerful tool available to me, I’m going to use it whenever I can.

Now, this is where it gets complicated. You can view these emotive buttons as ‘tricks’ used by any speaker. Each audience is different, of course, but there are certain ‘tricks’ that work with most audiences – and human emotions are universally understood; a tear, for example, is unequivocal in its meaning. So if a speaker cries whilst telling a moving story, it is almost certain that their audience will empathise with those tears and be more inclined to believe the speaker even if they don’t fully understand the language being spoken.

Where am I going with this?

I recently had a discussion with a woman who told me that she saw a speaker who was an expert in NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and who cried during her presentation. The problem she had with the speaker was that she didn’t quite believe that the tears were genuine and that they were being used as an emotive trick – she sensed that the emotion was stage-managed.

This raised a fascinating philosophical point about speaking: where does passion stop and manipulation begin?

In the same way that a chiropractor attempts to manipulate your body, a speaker attempts to manipulate your thoughts and emotions – that’s their job. If the NLP expert had been more convincing with her tears, would that have made her speech more acceptable as well as more successful?

If you knew which buttons to press with members of a certain group to get them to do what you wanted them to do, how do you examine your own motives? If you’re being paid to deliver the speech, do you examine your motives at all other than ‘I’m just following my orders to the best of my ability’?

Here’s a thought experiment: say you are in the audience to see a speaker who is a famous actor and who you know is also an expert in NLP, hypnosis, oratory, psychology and magic and is lachrymose to boot. They’re pitching for a way of life that you are dubious about—should you discount their speech entirely because you know they are deliberately trying to manipulate you? Or is being forewarned, forearmed?

The greatest orators in history were masters of button selection with their audience.

Whether their motives were for good or evil, only history decides.