Evoking readers’ emotions – a lesson from an unlikely place

Posted: November 27, 2013 in reading, writing
Tags: , , , ,

How we feel about a piece of writing is as important as what we think about it. That’s true when reflecting on what we like, and it’s also true when interpreting the author’s intention. Whether it’s a heart-warming tale of romance to help you relax, or an action packed adventure to set the heart pounding, literature is all about the feels.

Those feelings are very important, and it’s useful to know what effect they will have on readers. Today I want to explore that using a modern literary classic, Deloitte consulting’s ‘Human Capital Trends 2013’.

Human what now?

OK, unless you work in the higher layers of HR management, or like me have been hired to write something in that field, you’ve probably never heard of this paper. But if you’ve ever worked in a large company then you’ve met its linguistic ilk. It’s a 25 page report on a management topic, rammed full of buzzwords and managerial jargon. If you grind your teeth at the phrase ‘moving forward’ or cringe at the title ‘innovating the talent brand’ then you get the idea. If not, lucky you.

I hate the sort of language these papers use. They hide their meaning behind linguistic acrobatics and trendy buzzwords, rather than clearly explaining their substance. It’s the corporate equivalent of a group of teenagers imitating the latest slang. I have to pause every few paragraphs as my eyes glaze over.

And yet, it serves a purpose.

Feeling good

This language isn’t just a bad habit. It’s designed to evoke a feeling. To inspire confidence in people who live in this buzzword world, or who are deeply clued into the latest management trends (yes, management has trends, just like fashion or literature – I don’t know what the management equivalent of urban fantasy is, maybe HR vampires, but if you’ve got an idea then post it below). To imply cutting edge thought and deep intelligence. To leave readers intrigued and maybe just a little confused, so that they go to the likes of Deloitte for help.

It makes readers feel like they’re part of an elite, an elite that reads and uses this sort of advice. But it also creates a sense of tension, as readers become convinced that there’s something here they ought to use, but don’t quite know how. It’s a tension that drives them to use organisations like Deloitte.

I don’t know how far this is deliberate, and how far it’s just how this corporate language has evolved through trial and error. But like a Mills and Boon novel, it’s all about the feelings.

So what?

This blog isn’t about corporate trends or buzzword bingo, so why is this relevant to fiction writing? Two reasons.

Firstly, whether you mean to or not, you will evoke feelings through your writing. Successful writing uses those feelings to drive behaviour, to pull readers in and make them buy what you’re selling – for Deloitte that’s consulting services, for authors it’s books. Think about what feelings you’re evoking, how they draw readers through the story, how you’ll leave them at the end.

Secondly, nothing works for everyone. That language in the Deloitte paper doesn’t inspire me, it annoys me. I’m not their customers, so that doesn’t matter. But you should be aware of who your writing will deter as well as who it will attract; how that will limit you; how it will limit the usefulness to you of those people’s opinions.

So there we go. I’ve vented my feelings on this bit of reading, and hopefully turned them into something useful. Now back to the world of human capital.


  1. My undergrad degree is in anthropology and the social sciences are FULL of jargon. I got really tired of the word “problematization.” I think as much as anything people use those buzzwords to make themselves seem smarter, more insightful, especially in the case you mention because HR is dominated by women who feel they have needed to justify themselves to men. The language creates an “in” crowd for them to be a part of (and to exclude others from).

    • I think you’re right about the ‘in crowd’ aspect of it. Funnily enough, when I think about gender and this sort of HR managementese I associate it with men, because of their dominance of upper management. And that’s got me thinking about how people, especially women in HR, resist that dominance through language use. A train of thought that, sadly, I’m going to have to leave for now so that I can get on with my work.
      Out of interest, did you ever look at modern workplaces while studying anthropology? I’ve read a couple of interesting ethnographic articles in that area, and find the distancing effect of looking at our familiar world through a researcher’s eyes absolutely fascinating.

      • Yes, modern work environments was actually being touted as the future for anthropologists when I was getting my degree in the early 2000s. There are all kinds of ethical issues when you work with native peoples (plus there is no such thing as a society untouched by the modern world anymore) so this is definitely the direction we were told the discipline was going. For a project I did an ethnography on a rock band, but I think the most interesting modern one I read was about online gaming communities and how vocabulary brings them together. But we were told the money in anthropology was in corporate settings and getting to the root of work place cultures and dynamics. And I agree, it is totally fascinating! The downside is that in recent years some ethnographies have been used to undermine subcultures. For instance, after a book about gypsy culture was published several members of the community that was studied were late arrested for identity fraud (they regularly share social security numbers).

        • I am totally jealous of anybody getting to study a rock band or gaming as part of their subject, though as a historian I feel I got some pretty exciting subject matter myself. But that thing about the gypsy book’s really interesting too – the way that avoiding the ethical dilemmas of studying foreign cultures is instead throwing up unexpected ethical problems in our own society.

  2. glenatron says:

    I think there is a mixture of elitist terminology and useful terminology for things that people don’t have words for because they don’t need them in day to day life. I suspect that a lot of the elitist management speak is useful to managers because it makes it look as though they have some kind of specialist knowledge and it makes them feel as though it is less likely that people will see through them and realise they are not doing anything.

    At the other end of the scale if you talk to someone in an old trade like a fisherman or a carpenter, you’ll probably run into all kinds of terms that have nothing to do with elitism and more to do with the fact that most people don’t need words for the things they do. Even in modern artisan activities like programming we have all kinds of terms that most people don’t use – caching, memory addresses, registers, compilers, runtimes – the man in the street doesn’t need these things but we do. The same goes for the other side of my life when I’m talking with the buckaroo type guys I have learnt with and they’ll talk about working with feel, getting in time with the feet, picking up your life, adding a bit of energy, moving from a bosal through a two rein to a spade bit ( at which point you’re straight up in the bridle ) while riding in a slick fork saddle with a cheyenne roll and a strap for your lariat. It’s got a lot of terminology to it and most people won’t need to know what any of it means, but if you want to belong to that community you’re going to have to learn the terminology.

    • I think you’re absolutely right about that difference between elitist and useful terminology. It’s useful to have a specialist jargon for any subject, including management which is an increasingly refined field in its own right. What I think probably happens more with management than with some other specialties is that people sometimes use those words in imprecise ways, or without really knowing what they mean. That muddies the waters and makes them even more prone to use in obfuscatory rather than helpful ways.

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