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Capturing emotional triggers, for storytelling during business transformation

Who can forget the emotionally charged smashing courtroom climax in the movie, “A Few Good Men,” when a formidable warrior in Colonel Nathan R. Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson, is cross examined on the witness stand by a brash Navy lawyer, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise. Col. Jessep explodes with “You can’t handle the truth!” that emotionally connected with audiences all over the world. The emotional build up to that point started right from the very start of the movie.

Watch the start of the movie…

That start for the movie unravels the backstory and sets the tone for rest of the story effectively. It must have triggered some strong emotions in you right now as you watched the beginning of that movie. Emotion is scary, no doubt about it. Strong feelings make us vulnerable, and that is a scary place to be. Yet what you saw in that clip is an emotional trigger. It grabs you right from the start and then with a smash cut to the Washington Navy Yard and the US Marine Corp Band performing, you are at ease. Meanwhile, the setting for the story is introduced to you.

The shock of watching a murder in progress still lingers in your head, and you know more is to coming on that front later, while you are mesmerized with the pageantry of the band and the rifle drill team with flags, banners and the works. The tone may not be something you can find adequate words to explain. But if you think about the scenes you saw, it makes an impression on you that will only get further cemented in your psyche as you watch rest of the movie. It is a tightly written script that culminates with the “You can’t handle the truth!” climax, in a well paced and well crafted emotional journey with lots of drama.

Emotional Triggers

Now, take note of how you emotionally reacted while watching that clip. Analyze what created those feelings – the setting as the movie fades-in, the pre-dawn hour, the boots of the two people marching into the barracks in the dark, no body or face shown, the attack on someone in their bed, the body language of each character involved, the music, lighting and setting – all played you into reacting emotionally. Note how the setting created the mood and affected your emotions from the attack scene, and then the complete contrast to the pageantry at Washington Navy Yard. That initial scene was an emotional trigger that was strategically placed right at the beginning with a deliberate purpose - to grab the attention of the audience from the start.

Observing what makes a good story and what triggers the reactions in you is a key part of learning how to create those triggers in your own narratives. Keep a notebook to capture such scenes, while watching movies, reading good fictional stories, watching news, or even experiencing real life. That becomes an inventory of best practices on emotional triggers for you to use in your own storytelling.

Capturing Emotional Triggers

When you meet people for the first time, many factors play into how you feel about them. How they make impressions on you, how you will remember them, and whether or not you’d like to get to know them better. If they ask questions about you and listen to what you have to say, means that they like you. The people who you know and meet create emotional response in you. The same way, you have emotional responses to the story books you read. What you take away from that reading experience is how it made you feel.

Now watch a movie or read a book, while you have your Emotion Journal beside you. Write down your thoughts and observations, and record the ways the emotion is conveyed. And the thing that makes you react in certain ways. Be observant about all the aspects you see in the movie or book, like settings, characters, scenes, sequences, music, visuals, etc. that triggers your emotional response. Note how these factors create mood and affects your emotions.

Characters and Emotional Triggers

As you captured the emotional triggers in your Emotion Journal, you probably discovered that the dialogues, situations, and events that triggered your emotional responses, all came from you emotional investment in the characters. You only have emotional responses when you feel strongly about some thing and when a lot is at stake. That is why the character motivation is important when it comes to emotional triggers. Each of the characters in your own narrative will need a prime motivating factor that is driven by a prime motivating incident. Also called inciting incidents, these are events in the past that shaped your characters to become what they are today. All of us are the sum total of all our past experiences. It is from some of those motivational incidents that your characters will have inner motivations to behave in certain ways. And unless you bring out those backstories from the characters’ past, their behavior will seem irrational in your narrative.

Showing how the character perceives the world and has inner motivations that drive him/her is what makes them unique and believable. This story character must be someone with flaws and strengths, with whom the audience can identify. The most important test as a storyteller is to make your audience care. So the characters must be sympathetic and believable in order to create emotional response in your audience. When you watch movies or observe life around you, make note of how emotional responses are triggered through several factors in the story.

Case-in point – Murder in the Barracks

Suppose you are meeting someone for the first time and he/she goes on and on about how bad their in-laws are to you. That might be too much information for a first-time meeting and you might not be interested in it. What if it was your best friend, who comes to you and pours out in visceral pain, after a broken relationship? You will be all invested in the story and would be all ears. You might even console that person with a hug for comfort.

That is why starting the movie by showing the actual attack in the barrack with no dialogues, only action, and lot of questions, was so brilliant. That starting scene that you saw definitely triggers many emotional responses. Who are those people who attacked a sleeping person in the barracks? What is motivating them? Are they the bad guys or the good guys? It got the audience all invested, wanting to know more about what really happened and wanting to get to resolution about it. After seeing that violent scene at the start, the movie grabs the audience attention to take them on a journey to resolution with exquisite storytelling craft. It keeps you at the edge of your seat through out all the ups and downs in the movie, with a compelling drive until the end.

Emotional Triggers during Business Transformation

Here is a real example of how this particular emotional trigger discussed above from the movie “A Few Good Men” was used. It was in a video clip shown before an “all-hands meeting” for a massive transformation initiative undertaken at a $7 Billion annual revenue global medical products company that was under a consent decree by Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for non-compliance with federal regulations. The company was loosing $1 Million a day in revenue due to the consent decree. A massive global event to kick off the transformation initiative was planned, where the President of the company would speak to the whole organization at the same time across all geographic regions.

The President of the company was convinced that he needed to get the full attention of all the employees across his organization at this carefully orchestrated event. He was shown this clip from the movie “A few Good Men” to make the point. He agreed to a carefully scripted video clip that showed how a man in his 40s, the sole bread-earner in a family with 3 young children under the age of 10 and his wife, died in Brazil due to their medical product being non-compliant to FDA regulations. The clip was scripted meticulously with lots of drama to grab the attention at the start of the presentation by the President and bring focus to the problem, to a world-wide audience. It not only got an emotional response from the audience, it helped emotionally connect with them and got them to emotionally commit to a significant cultural shift in the company. The company got re-certified by FDA as compliant with the federal regulations after 9 months of rigorous implementation of the transformation initiative from the day the “all-hands meeting” was held.


If you are making lists of such emotional triggers, watching movies, reading fiction, or just being observant of the world around you, and analyzing the triggers that create strong emotions, you should have a reservoir of triggers to tap from for your own stories, real or fictional. Real life business transformations have fantastic motivations, a detailed backstory, and have a vision of the future state where you are going. You could draw the emotions from the people in the organization to generate favorable emotional responses, connections and commitment towards the massive organizational change necessary, that sticks.

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