How often have you found yourself wanting to agree with a speaker’s message, but being put off by the means the speaker uses to drive the point home? I call this the “rebound effect.” Nobody likes to be hit over the head with a message – even one you might otherwise be inclined to agree with.
I found this happening to me recently as I listened to a speech by someone whose political outlook is not far removed from my own. Although I wanted to agree with his premise, I was put off by the terms in which he couched it, as a choice that was far too black-and-white to be a real choice at all. I felt that his argument, put in such stark terms, would be unlikely to persuade anyone.
That is why the art of persuasion is on my mind this week. Or perhaps I should say the art and science of persuasion, as this is a topic that has garnered a great deal of research over the years by marketers, political consultants, and even legitimate social scientists. Books on the topic are too numerous to count. (My personal favorite, Made to Stick, is by the same Chip and Dan Heath whose most recent book was the subject of my last post.) So, one might legitimately ask why I would even attempt to scratch the surface of this topic in a blog post. Answer: because I so often see speakers make the same three mistakes.
Mistake number one: failing to guide the audience. The speech to which I referred earlier began with a stark choice between (and I’m paraphrasing here) justice and evil corporatism. It was right there on the graphic from the beginning. There was no subtlety about it. The speaker then worked at engaging the audience through a series of “What if?” questions, an admirable technique. However, as the speaker’s conclusion was already evident from the beginning, the questions were robbed of much of their power. What if, instead, he had offered a series of questions, the answers to which led the audience to see things from the speaker’s point of view? Remember the adage, “If I say it, you can doubt it; if you say it, you’ll believe it.” Don’t hand the audience your conclusion on a platter (or poster or slide) and beat them into submission; rather, guide them to reach their own conclusion.
Mistake number two: failing to recognize the real choice to be made. I see this all the time, especially in political speech. Speakers over-simplify to reduce a complex issue to a simple choice which is really no choice at all. Speakers, please give your listeners credit for at least a certain amount of intelligence. If the choice were as simple as you make it seem, it would already have been made and your speech would not be necessary. (While some may argue that most political speech is unnecessary, that is a topic for another day.)
Mistake number three: failing to be audience-centric. This goes back to a frequent topic of mine, the specific purpose. While your general purpose may be to inform, to persuade, or to inspire, your specific purpose is, well, more specific. It is the answer to the question, “What do I want my listeners to think, do, or feel differently after hearing me?” I always advise my coaching clients to come up with a clear answer to this question before taking any next steps toward constructing or delivering a speech. By doing so, you are bound to focus more on what your audience needs from you in order to create that result. Then, by incorporating techniques I have described previously, such as the use of “You”-focused language, you can begin to create that new thought, feeling, or desire for action in your listeners’ minds. In other words, speak to the audience’s need to understand, not to your need to be understood.
With another election cycle upon us, you are bound to be exposed to many attempts at persuasion. Listen for how often these mistakes are made. When it comes your turn to speak, avoid making them!
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