Emotional Intelligence

Joe Mande grew up idolizing his favorite comedian, Eddie Murphy. So when Mande started doing stand-up in clubs around New York five years ago, he tried to imitate his style. Murphy bounced around the stage in loud leather clothing and told rapid-fire jokes in his signature manic voice. But when Mande tried using that same frantic energy, he could tell the audience didn’t respond the same way that Murphy’s did.

“People can tell if you’re posturing or trying too hard,” Mande says. The audience could sense he was nervous. He sounded as if he was speeding through jokes. Mande had to try to embrace his natural low-energy style, so over the years he learned to slow his delivery and simply speak to his audience.

In 2008, he was named “Best New Comedian” by Time Out New York.

Mande’s observation that his audience wasn’t responding to him the way he wanted, and later his adjustment of his act, point to a crucial element of public speaking – emotional intelligence. The emotional intelligence quotient (EIQ) is a measure of how aware people are of their emotions and those around them. Training in reading emotions and preparing responses has become increasingly popular in the last few years among businesses trying to update managers. Studies have shown that emotional intelligence can contribute to success just as much as – if not more than – intellectual aptitude.

“You have to have a good sense for how people feel about you while you’re up there,” says Mande, who takes cues regularly from his audiences’ applause or laughter. “All comedians want is for people to like them, so if people don’t like you then you’re doing everything you can to try and change that.” 

What is Emotional Intelligence?
People with high levels of emotional intelligence can accurately read other people’s intentions, desires and motivations. That aptitude helps them better interact with others, writes Indiana University of Pennsylvania speech pathologist Shari Robertson in her study on the increasing attention that is paid to emotional intelligence in workplaces nationwide. Eliminating emotions from important decisions, as many people are told to do, can be crippling, Robertson notes. Sometimes, a gut instinct can be just as useful as facts. Daniel Goleman, who wrote the renowned book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, says that 90 percent of success in people’s lives can be accounted for by measures outside of IQ.

Goleman writes in his book that the foundation of emotional intelligence holds four pillars:

  • Self-awareness.
  • Self-management of behaviors, such as body language, word choice, facial pressions and tone of voice.
  • Social awareness, which is the ability to perceive other people’s emotions.
  • Relationship management.

Regulating emotions is crucial to public speaking, Robertson notes. For example, a speaker might be annoyed at a group of people sitting in the front row. But rather than expressing that annoyance through an eye-roll or a shrug, it might be better to ignore it or to address it quickly by asking them to quiet down, Robertson says. 

How to Learn Emotional Intelligence
Some people have an overall issue with the term “emotional intelligence” because it implies that emotional understanding is an innate ability and not one that can be taught. The term “emotional quotient” is often applied in the same way as the intellectual quotient. But most specialists agree that certain skills for working with others can be taught.

Susan Rivers, a Yale University psychologist, studies emotional training for children. But she also organizes sessions for educators at many New York schools. Usually, the training lasts for one to three days and involves learning how to recognize facial expressions and sharing information on leading research about understanding emotions. Another part of the training is practicing. People pair up and practice acting out emotions and guessing other people’s emotions with partners.

Rivers says this training can change the competitive nature of working environments, gearing people instead for collaboration and cooperation. These skills can be especially important these days, as many companies are being forced to lay off workers. If leaders are trained in emotional intelligence, they’ll know how to let workers go, hospitably and with respect, which can dramatically alter the employees’ feelings when leaving a corporation, Rivers says. Emotional intelligence won’t necessarily change an outcome, but it will help ease any resulting tensions.

Robertson, who coaches businesses in team building activities, says that much of emotional training has its base in lessons she has given companies for years. “Emotional intelligence” is a term that’s recently gained footing to communicate a very traditional concept.

She usually includes exercises to determine whether people are passive, passive aggressive, assertive or aggressive communicators and teaches managers to understand messages their employees are sending, with words or without. She accomplishes this by asking each trainee to put himself or herself in another person’s situation and figure out what that person is feeling.

“The term ‘emotional intelligence’ is in vogue right now,” Robertson says. “There’s a different way to be smart than what’s on an intelligence test. It’s not a new concept. It’s a new term.” 

Emotional intelligence and Public Speaking
Rivers says a crucial element of public speaking is to create the right mood among listeners. You want an audience to have a high level of energy when you’re trying to garner excitement about a new project or make them feel quiet and more contemplative if you need them to learn a new concept.

Rivers specializes in using emotional intelligence in a classroom setting. She has taught teachers to use a mood-reader, a chart that allows students to convey to their teachers their energy level as well as their emotional level. Teachers who need their students to be in a low-energy mood, which is best for teaching math skills, for example, might play soothing music or have their kids think about the challenges of math. An alternative in a corporate setting is to use an ice-breaker activity or to test the audience members’ moods by looking at their body language.

In the first five minutes of her speeches, Robertson tends to test out an audience’s personality. That’s when she determines, based on the audiences’ facial expressions whether she should speak in a more laid-back way with humor or whether she should speak seriously with just the facts. “Right away I’m trying to connect with this audience so I can be more effective as a speaker,” Robertson says. To make sure people are still engaged throughout, she invites responses from the audience. Afterward, she tests the effectiveness of her speeches based on how many people come up front to ask her questions. That way, she knows she’s created an effective connection.

Of course, some people do question the usefulness of innate emotional intelligence to public speaking.

In fact, one study even questions whether this natural aptitude is really useful for public speaking. Wright University psychologist Tamera Schneider asked 126 undergraduate psychology students to participate in a study to investigate whether emotional intelligence had an impact on performance in various tasks, one of which was public speaking.

After taking a quiz that scored their emotional intelligence, participants were required to assume the role of a manager, but they were informed that an employee had accused them of sexual harassment. Their task was to develop and present a speech in front of their boss (a video camera) to defend their actions. To intensify task ambiguity, they were not given details about the incident. Participants were given two minutes to develop their speech and three minutes to present it. If they stopped talking, an experimenter prompted them to continue.

Schneider found that for men in the study, emotional understanding was connected with delivering a speech more effectively and with better content. For women, emotional intelligence didn’t improve results with the speech task as much. This suggests a gender-specific relation between EIQ and public speaking – some people appear to be more affected by EIQ than others.

Still, all speakers agree that it’s good to take cues from your audience. For example, Joe Mande forgot who his audience was at a Hanukah event last December. Rather than acknowledge the Jewish holiday, he made a joke about Christian holidays, and unsurprisingly, the audience wasn’t amused. So he acknowledged that the joke hadn’t worked and went on to talk about how he taught a group of kids at his grade school to play the Hanukah game, Dreidel. His audience seemed to enjoy the show much more once it seemed tailored to their event.

Steve Mitten, an emotional intelligence coach living in Vancouver, Canada, says it best: “It becomes more of a dance between the audience and the speaker, and it leads to a much more powerful talk.”

Sushma Subramanian is a freelance journalist in New York. She can be reached at sushma.subramanian@gmail.com.