Handle With CARE: 4 Keys To Convince Any Audience

May 29, 2012

I was exchanging recently with fellow presentation specialist Alex Rister, who was asking me how I go about convincing people to change. I had just given a Presentation 2.0 talk to a group of management consultants, who are usually among the worst offenders when it comes to Death by PowerPoint, and not only did they get it – they even asked me back for another session on storytelling.

Pleasantly surprised, Alex asked me for the magic keys to convince an audience to change. After some thought, this is my answer.

There are four keys to convince any audience to start, stop or continue doing something. They are all necessary. Together, they make the acronym CARE: Credibility, Action, Reason, and Empathy.

Credibility

If you have no credibility in your audience’s eyes, your message will (at best) go in one ear, and out the other.

Imagine you pass a shaggy smelly tramp in the street, who is shouting “The world will end tomorrow!” Do you pay much attention? No, because he has no credibility to deliver that message. Now imagine the US President making a televised address saying exactly the same thing. Now do you pay attention? The difference is not the message: it is the credibility of the person delivering it.

Imagine you are pregnant, and a friendly lady gazes at your tummy and exclaims “Ah, it must be a boy!” Do you believe her? Now imagine a gynecologist who, after performing an ultrasound scan, announces “Ah, it must be a boy!” Do you believe her? The difference: credibility. And not only does the gynecologist know what she is talking about: she also performed a credible check to draw her conclusion. She has evidence.

Credibility, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. My Parisian consultants gave me credibility to talk about business communication because I have many years of management and sales experience, I’ve successfully sold major contracts up to $100M, and I teach at the world’s number one business school just down the road, quite apart from running one of Europe’s leading presentation firms.

All that was important in their eyes. Perhaps an audience in Latin America might never have heard of HEC Paris, so that wouldn’t lend me any credibility with them. Perhaps my business-to-business sales management experience wouldn’t be worth a lot when talking to a children’s charity. Perhaps my Executive MBA would actually count against me when speaking to some groups. So I don’t automatically have credibility with all audiences for all kinds of messages. But with this audience, my experience resonated with them, and they therefore listened seriously to what I had to say.

Sadly, if you are an intern with little or no experience, and you give exactly the same talk with the same slides to the same audience, you will probably fall at the first hurdle because of your lack of credibility. It doesn’t matter whether you are right. Nobody believed Ignaz Semmelweis when he suggested surgeons should wash their hands between patients in order to save lives, but he was right. Nobody believed Barry Marshall when he suggested stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria, partly because the idea was ridiculous but particularly because he was just a simple unknown researcher in Western Australia of all places. He was right, but nobody listened.

The conclusion is simple. Without credibility, your audience will not accept your request to act. Speak about subjects where you are credible, and ensure that you establish credibility in your audience’s eyes right at the start of your talk. And if the message is important but you have little hope of being taken seriously, find somebody else whom the audience will listen to and believe.

Action

Now that you have credibility, you need to ask the audience to act. This could be to stop doing something, start doing something, continue doing something, or do something differently.

First, you need to be clear in your own mind about what action you want them to take. Complete this sentence:

“After my presentation, my audience will…”

Do you want them to buy something? Use a different piece of software? Try a different sales approach? Be careful about strange men offering to drive them home? Recycle their kitchen waste? Give to charity? Choose brands which are ecologically responsible? Reflect on how social media can drive sales? There has to be something. Find it and make this the foundation of your talk. (If you find nothing at all, cancel the presentation because it will be a waste of everyone’s time.)

Next, you need to make it clear what action you want the audience to take. Your talk should not be a cryptic crossword. Don’t leave them guessing what you expect them to do. Ask them clearly. If you want them to invest $200k in your start-up, say so. If you leave them to guess, they might guess wrong, or they might not bother guessing at all.

So you need a clear action which you are asking your audience to take afterwards, you need to spell it out clearly – and of course, you need to have credibility to ask them to take that action.

Reason

The next key is a Reason. No matter how much credibility you have, your audience will not do what you ask them to do unless they actually want to do so. The reason might be more stick than carrot – “If you don’t meet your sales quota this quarter, you’re fired!” may not be an effective motivation tool (cf Drive by Dan Pink), but it does at least give people a reason to want to sell more – but carrots usually work better, and social psychology is even more powerful. For example, the best way to get people to recycle more is to explain to them that their neighbours are recycling more than they are. (Thanks to the fantastic Olivier Oullier for this example – more of him on the blog soon.)

Whatever your reason, it will clearly need to resonate with the audience. Think carefully about what will work best for them. When selling print services, the usual pitch was an annual hard cost saving which would appeal to the CFO and usually to the CIO. One company’s CIO had a carbon reduction target. We showed him how he could save money AND save CO2 by optimizing his print environment. That was a much more powerful reason than cost savings alone, although it was specific to that CIO’s own context. What will work with your audience?

So you not only need to ask them to take an action: you also have to give them a reason for wanting to do so. A request for action without a strong reason leads to no action at all.

Empathy

The final part of CARE, then, is Empathy. In order to find an action which the audience will benefit from taking, a reason they will accept, and the necessary elements to convince them that you are a credible person to deliver this message, you first have to put yourself in their shoes, and get inside their heads.

What are their needs? Their desires? Their fears? Their concerns? Their problems? Their aspirations? Their objectives? How will they react to your request to act? What would make them listen to someone asking them to do it?

Think what reasons they might have to resist taking your desired action. There is always one huge one: doing nothing (or changing nothing) is always the easiest option, so beware of the principle of least effort. There may be many other reasons as well. Don’t dismiss or reject them, even if they are plain wrong. As we saw earlier, being right doesn’t actually help you to generate action. Right or wrong, your audience is emotionally attached to their reasons to resist, and if you tell them they are wrong, they will cling on to them even more strongly.

So for each reason for resistance, you need to show that you understand that reason, and that you respect it. (Never skip that step.) Then find a way to add new information which gets them to think that perhaps they didn’t have the whole picture before. And get them to realize that in fact their reason for resistance isn’t so valid after all. It has to be their realization, not your affirmation.

Here’s an example, again from my print services experience. Selling for HP meant trying to convince customers that they would be better off with a ‘balanced deployment’ of distributed printers with some multi-function print-copy-scan devices, whereas the many copier-vendor competitors were pushing a more centralized approach, getting rid of the distributed printers and keeping only a few of these big multi-function devices (e.g. one per floor). In terms of pure hard cost-per-page, the centralized approach was usually cheaper.

So when selling ‘balanced deployment’ to an IT or facilities manager who believed that a centralized approach was the cheapest, it usually didn’t help to claim that they were wrong. It was much more effective to give them ideas like this:

“It’s true that if you reduce your devices to the bare minimum, of course it will be cheaper in terms of hard cost. The cheapest of all would be to put one big multi-function device in the building reception, and have everyone walk to it and queue up. Is that what you were thinking of? No? Of course not – in fact we’ve seen plenty of situations where companies have consolidated too much, and it has a number of bad results. First, people waste more time walking to devices, and then queueing up. Meetings get delayed because just as someone wants to print a few one-page handouts before going into the meeting room, someone else starts making 250 copies of a training manual. People near the copier complain because there are always people queueing, chatting and complaining. And when it breaks down – let’s face it, all devices break down sometimes – the impact is huge because the nearest alternative device is on another floor or even in another building. That means huge waste and loss of productivity. But that’s not all. Then, managers get fed up, and decide to buy printers on their own budgets for their teams’ convenience. One company in Switzerland ended up with just as many printers as they had before the consolidation, but the IT department had much less control, less standardization, more printer drivers to manage, and – worst of all – it ended up costing more than before. So you see, in theory it’s quite right that the centralized approach looks cheaper, but in practice, it doesn’t usually work out that way.”

Convincing through empathy means not telling people they are wrong. It means stepping into their shoes, understanding their reasons and showing respect for them, and then metaphorically putting your arm around their shoulder and guiding them gently towards your desired action.

CARE

So that’s how to handle your audience with CARE. Establish your credibility in their eyes; ask them clearly to take an action; give them a reason to take the action; and use empathy to understand how best to influence your audience, and to take them respectfully towards your desired outcome. If you CARE for your audience, they’ll CARE for your message. And that’s something you should certainly CARE about.


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