Audience disengagement

How to alienate an audience: forget the name of your host, be indiscrete, criticise the Olympics. These were Mitt Romney’s gaffs on his visit to the UK in July (Guardian), and reported as a “gift” to Barack Obama, who claimed in his speech on Thursday that his rival “might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.” (Guardian)

Rapport is difficult to establish, with whatever audience. Do digital media help? According to an analysis of social media in the contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, “both campaigns are very interested at the presidential level in using new technologies to try to understand voters, try to appeal to voters, try to get people to talk to their friends about the campaigns” (Lee Rainie).


Politicians and businesses think social media is a great way to develop rapport with electorates, customers and clients. Public figures who microblog seem keen to dispatch tweets signifying empathy with their followers. In an article circulating on the Internet, the co-founder of Twitter, Christopher Isaac Stone, asserts the importance of empathy in business ventures (though he insists there is “more to life than tweets”). Customer engagement is the business idiom for sociability, empathy and rapport.

Social media communicators who want to inform, persuade, and motivate could do worse than follow Aristotle’s advice in The Art of Rhetoric. To persuade an audience you need to establish rapport, which requires you to understand the emotional condition of the audience, to know how they are feeling. Know your audience and present to them accordingly. For Aristotle this emotional orientation involves being “disposed in a certain way” — the speaker to the audience, and the audience towards the speaker. Latch on to the mood of the crowd. Get the mood right and the job of persuasion is almost done.

Ideas, memes, stories, and arguments exert their influence in the context of the moods people are in. People have to be in the mood to respond to whatever influences come their way, whether going with the crowd or resisting it.

Mood and motivation

Were I to write a business manual, I would overstate the case thus: put your efforts into mood management and the solutions will follow. Of course, managing moods is a complex, difficult, subtle and contingent process. Mood management focuses on esprit de corps, solidarity, and communities rather than individuals. If you get the mood right then you’ve almost solved the problem. The audience is already persuaded. The team is motivated and near to the solution. The hard work is done. The rest is easy.

Business-oriented weblog authors are ready to offer advice in these terms. Enter “why blog” into your search engine. The answers invariably invoke concepts of building community, putting a human face on your brand, sharing, picking up on customer mood. Digital social media present collectivity as a virtue. Concepts such as smart mobs and crowd sourced creativity rely for their power on mood management.

Putting people off

Enter “how to alienate your audience” into your search engine. Over 100,000 web pages offer advice on the subject, with examples. Here’s a distillation: fluorescent lights, bad metaphors, checking emails while waiting to be introduced, answering the phone, complaining, yawning, bullet points, clip art, overstatement, addressing a different audience than the one in front of you, fire alarms, laughing at your own jokes, talking down to the audience, rolling your eyes, smiling all the time, not smiling, etc.  Also try mood killers.



  • Heidegger references Aristotle’s advice on public speaking in Being and Time, “Publicness, as the kind of Being which belongs to the ‘they,’ not only in general has its own way of having a mood, but needs moods and ‘makes’ them for itself. It is into such a mood and out of such a mood that the orator speaks. He must understand the possibilities of moods in order to rouse them and guide them aright.” (p.178)