Emotional Leadership: Insights from Fortune’s Top 50

Head Gut and Heart

The Data Says Lead with Emotions: Linguistic Analysis of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders

We analyzed the communication patterns of the global leaders on Fortune’s 2016 list to uncover the keys to their influence and success.

Each year, Fortune identifies the world’s 50 greatest leaders. Their list is not based not on title or fame, but on the intangibles that create strong, memorable leaders. The result of Fortune’s carefully crafted criteria is a widely varied list, including corporate executives, politicians, athletes, activists, and even musicians. The members of this list are united by their ability to articulate their mission and inspire others to follow.

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But we wondered what else the world’s greatest leaders might have in common — specifically, how their communication skills differentiate them from the average speaker.  

So we used our communication analytics platform to measure content samples from the English-speaking leaders on this year’s list, identifying the patterns that empower them to have such a great impact — and the lessons executives can learn from the best of the best.

We found that the World’s Greatest Leaders stand out in their persuasive abilities. Here’s how:

Instead of relying on logic, the world’s greatest leaders use 2.9x more appeals to emotion, and 3.4x more appeals to intuition.

When we measure persuasion, based on research dating all the way back to Aristotle, we consider three distinct tactics: logic, intuition, and emotion.

  • Logic appeals to our heads and includes language that establishes reason, proof, and insight, citing research and statistics to support main arguments.
  • Intuition appeals to our guts. These appeals establish credibility through language that convinces audiences to see the speaker as an expert, including achievements, testimonials, and case studies.
  • Emotion, of course, appeals to our hearts. These are the stories, the imagery, and the metaphors that help audiences become personally invested in the message.

Head Gut and Heart.pngWhen we looked at the language the world’s greatest leaders use to persuade audiences, we expected to see a combination of the three appeals. After all, a speaker’s job in crafting a persuasive argument is to understand the audience’s needs and create the right blend of appeals to head, gut, and heart to meet those needs.

But Fortune’s Greatest Leaders use an unexpected blend.

These leaders focus heavily on intuition and emotion, with little emphasis on logic.
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This preference for emotional and intuition-driven language was universal among the leaders on Fortune’s list, from politicians and corporate leaders to activists, journalists, and artists. Here are some examples that we found particularly striking.

As a noted leader in the growing trend of CEO activism, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff spends plenty of time trying to persuade his audiences. His primary target? Our intuitions.

Benioff scores in the 99th percentile for his use of appeals to his audiences’ intuition, as we can see in his March 2016 interview with Time on Salesforce’s activism against several anti-LGBT bills:

“The organizations that had the biggest impact in Georgia were not Silicon Valley companies. We may have started some of this or I may have started some of this, but I certainly didn’t finish it. It was organizations like the NFL, who said to the governor of Georgia, ‘If you do this, we’re not going to consider you for the Super Bowl.’ That’s a big deal. It was people like Disney who said ‘We’re not going to make any more movies in the state of Georgia.’”

Benioff positions himself as an expert by noting that he instigated the corporate stance against these bills, but further builds his credibility by citing several entities much larger than Salesforce that have joined him in the fight.

He inspires trust in his audience — even those who don’t know him well — by showing them who else has believed in his message and followed his lead.

Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, leans on emotional appeals to sway her audiences.

Saujani’s mission is to close the gender gap in technology fields, not just by teaching girls to code, but by changing the public mindset that computer science is a “boys’ field.” When she talks about her organization, she uses two distinct tactics to appeal to her audience’s emotions, and we can see both those tactics at play in her 2016 TED Talk, “Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection.”

First, there are moving stories about the girls she’s encountered in her work:

“Take, for instance, two of our high school students who built a game called Tampon Run — yes, Tampon Run — to fight against the menstruation taboo and sexism in gaming. Or the Syrian refugee who dared show her love for her new country by building an app to help Americans get to the polls. Or a 16-year-old girl who built an algorithm to help detect whether a cancer is benign or malignant in the off chance that she can save her daddy’s life because he has cancer.”

These stories serve much the same purpose as the narratives we see in Sarah McLachlan’s ASPCA advertisements or recent commercials from Subaru and Ikea. They’re designed to tug at the audience’s heartstrings, and build warm associations with the company and all the good it can do.

The second tactic we see in Saujani’s talk is the use of language designed to involve the audience personally, and to get them fired up about her mission.

“And so I need each of you to tell every young woman you know — your sister, your niece, your employee, your colleague — to be comfortable with imperfection, because when we teach girls to be imperfect, and we help them leverage it, we will build a movement of young women who are brave and who will build a better world for themselves and for each and every one of us.”

Once she’s built that emotional foundation, Saujani seals the deal by making her audience part of her fight, creating a sense of community to inspire listeners to join the cause — for their own sake.

But what about logic?

The leaders on Fortune’s list don’t eschew logic altogether. They, too, incorporate data and statistics to prove the solid foundations beneath their messages. But they know what neurological audience research has taught us, which is that those logical appeals are most effective on the expert audiences — like investors — who are already deeply familiar with our product or business. These audiences are looking for the cold, hard facts.

But for more general audiences—those who are new to our space—the key is to fast-track trust by appealing to their guts, and win them over emotionally by appealing to their hearts.

The World’s Greatest Leaders Set the Bar High

In our hyper-connected world, execs are facing mounting pressure to become best-in-class communicators, in a variety of settings and across countless channels.

With these heightened and evolving audience expectations, now more than ever, our corporate leaders need the very best role models for stellar executive communication.

Where better to find those role models than from Fortune’s annual list of the World’s Greatest Leaders? These leaders’ communication styles and global impact offer us plenty to look up to, but their examples are not beyond our reach. They can teach us in very practical ways how to inspire and persuade all our audiences.

To find out how QC can use our communication analytics platform to help your leadership deliver best-in-class messaging, 
email us at info@quantifiedcommunications.com.


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