Increasingly, we are becoming aware that emotional intelligence is crucial for marketers and thought leaders alike.[1] In order to sell anything, you need to build a relationship with your customers. And to build connections and relationships requires emotional intelligence.

However, what does this mean in practice? A video from a TED Talk by actor Adam Driver offers some clues.[2]Adam Driver is famous for playing Kylo Ren in the more recent Star Wars movies, but he is also a ‘serious actor’, with two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor in 2018 and Best Actor in 2019. Before he moved into acting, he was a United States Marine, joining the forces aged 17, shortly after 9/11. In 2006, he co-founded Arts in the Armed Forces, a not-for-profit that brings theatre and actors to serving military bases around the world. We believe that there are lessons from Driver’s work and experiences for thought leaders.

Life—in every sphere—is about making human connections

In the edited version of his talk available on LinkedIn,[3] Driver talks about his military experience. He explains that what he chiefly remembers is the people. The human connections between him and his peers are the glue that bound them together as friends and colleagues, through sharing emotional experiences. In his talk, he notes that there are many parallels between military service and acting, including the short-term nature of assignments, the shared cause, and the sense of being part of something larger than you. It may be harder to see similarities in an ordinary ‘work situation’, and there is no doubt that it is easier to build emotional links under pressure. However, connections can and should be built in any sphere by finding shared experiences and emotions.

Two adorable little sisters playing with a digital tablet at home. Child in an elementary school. Education and learning for kids.

You need a shared language—but you can help to build that

The raison d’etre behind Arts in the Armed Forces is to give soldiers and their families a way of talking about their experiences: to give them words for their feelings. Driver describes movingly how he found that playwrights had words for things that he had previously thought indescribable, and that theatre gave his words for his emotions for the first time. This, he suggests, made him less aggressive, because he could use words instead of actions. In thought leadership, you also need a shared language to build connections. If your audience does not already have that language, you may need to provide it. Be alert to this possibility, and don’t assume that the language is already there.

Sharing emotions is extremely powerful

In a previous article, we talked about how to drive action in your audience.[4] One way to do this is to share your own emotions. You may even need to share more than you might actually want to make that connection. Driver talks about the power of being in a roomful of strangers and reminding yourself of your shared humanity. Sometimes you need to strip your own thoughts bare for this process to happen. It’s not always comfortable—but it builds strong connections.

Building connections works both ways

One of the most interesting parts of Driver’s talk is a brief remark about the benefits of the Arts in the Armed Forces program for the actors concerned. He calls it a ‘window into a culture that they would not otherwise be exposed to’, adding that the benefit is the same for the soldiers. By putting the actors’ experience first, he makes a powerful reminder that in thought leadership, too, there is always something you can learn from others. Building connections benefits both sides.

Both acting and thought leadership can be considered a service at one level or another

Towards the end of his talk, Driver comments that acting is many things, including a craft and a business. However, he says, it is also a service. Arts for the Armed Forces provides a service to the military personnel: a way of helping them through hard times and experiences by giving them words. It would be possible to say the same thing about almost everything, but certainly thought leadership. By sharing information and solutions, you are effectively providing a service. Thinking about it in this way may help you to think about why you share information that your audience will find useful—and not just information that promotes you and/or your brand.