Expect the best – or the worst

As I write, my two sons are suffering with flu, and I am at home looking after them. Naturally, I am filling up on fruit, vegetables and vitamins in an effort to avoid catching their illness. Equally naturally, I am on the watchout for signs that indicate I might be falling ill.

Sometimes you find what you look for, and sometimes you find what you expect to find. Often the slightest clue might be taken as proof of what you expect to happen. So in my situation, if I sneeze, then of course I’m getting flu. If I feel a slight stiffness in my legs, then of course I’m getting flu. Even if I’m not, that’s the impression I get.

We’re predisposed to give excessive credence to things which support our beliefs or expectations, and to dismiss things which do not. That goes just as much for communication as it does for hyperchondria. What does it mean for you and your presentation?

If the audience is expecting to be bored, there’s a good chance they will be.

If the audience expects you to be a poor presenter, it will only take a few ums and ahs or a slightly monotonous delivery and they’ll switch off.

If the audience expects death by PowerPoint, the merest appearance of a set of bullet-points or the slightest glimpse of Comic Sans will be enough to confirm their expectations and remove any chance that they might listen to you and take your message seriously.

So what can you do about this? It comes down to two key points:

  1. Set positive expectations
  2. Meet or exceed them

It’s easier said than done, of course, but with a little thought it’s possible to set expectations which are positive and yet realistic, giving you a chance of meeting them.

The expectations will have to be positive, because if you set people up to expect something unprofessional, they’ll probably find what they’re looking for.

It’s also key to make them expect something positive, not just hope for it, and if you tell them it will be good but they don’t believe it, then their expectations will still be negative.

There are many ways to set expectations. You can begin by telling the audience what they are going to hear, or by making a controversial statement which will arouse the audience’s interest, or by asking a question which you will proceed to answer. Here are some examples:

Today, I’m going to show you why document security should be your number one concern – and a solution which will dramatically reduce your risks.

Your company’s single biggest cost is the lack of document security.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could set a document to self-destruct at the first sign of a leak? Well, you can. Here’s how.

Equally, setting expectations begins with the title of your talk, the introduction before you take the stage, any information people have about you and your talk beforehand (brochure, programme, etc), and your reputation. If you have a reputation as a famous author, for example, you might get away with a less professional delivery than an unknown simply because the audience will expect you to have something worthwhile to say and will persist longer before switching off.

Of course, once you’ve set your positive expectations, you then need to live up to them. Which involves a clear structure, good use of storytelling techniques, strong oratory and (possibly) great visuals.

If you can set positive expectations, and meet or exceed them, then your audience should be hot for your message – and you won’t catch a cold on stage.

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One Response to Expect the best – or the worst

  1. [...] already blogged about how it’s important to raise expectations to a level that’s high enough to make [...]

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