When “Being Yourself” Can Hurt Your Persuasiveness

Sometimes you have to adapt your style to fit the audience

There’s a lot to be said for “being yourself” in a presentation or a sales meeting; people can usually spot when someone is not being genuine and will raise their guard accordingly. But taken too far,

Persuasion is not about getting people to see things your way; it’s about getting them to see your point in their way. People are different, and they respond differently to different types of information. Some people want to go through the thought process step by step, while others want you to get to the point immediately. Some people want to see passion in your presentation, others get suspicious if they think your passion is a substitute for analysis. Some care mostly about the bottom line, while others say the real bottom line is people, and how it will affect them. Strategic persuaders consider the listener’s preferred mode of receiving information when they craft their message.

There’s a rich body of literature in sales and communication that addresses the issue. One of the better-known approaches segments the population into four quadrants. I’ve seen this approach under many different labels, but the terminology I’m most familiar with is that of Wilson Learning’s social style selling strategies, which uses the terms analytic, driver, amiable and expressive. (Note: this has nothing to do with “auditory, visual and kinesthetic” learning styles, a training myth that is way past its expiration date.)

People differ in so many dimensions that it could be confusing to track them all. Social styles are fairly simple to figure out because they look at just two dimensions, assertiveness and responsiveness. Some ask your opinion and others tell you what it should be—that’s assertiveness. On the ask side of the scale are the analytics and amiables, and drivers and expressive are on the tell side. Responsiveness has to do with how much weight they put on tasks vs. people in their decisions. Analytics are more task-oriented and amiables and expressives pay more attention to the human aspect.

So, what does this mean if you are giving a presentation? Ideally, you would know who the most important decision makers are in the room and would tailor your presentation so that the evidence you bring to support your points fits their styles best.  Let’s use an example to see how this might work.

Suppose you’re presenting a business proposal internally that solves a business problem. This type of presentation usually comprises a description of the problem, a consideration of alternatives, and a recommendation. If you want to appeal to the analytics in the room, you will spend extra time on the problem definition, particularly the process by which you analyzed the problem and determined the root causes. For the amiables, you can stress how you have talked to the relevant stakeholders and received their blessing for the solution. For the drivers, keep it short and present two options and let them choose. For the expressive, paint a vision of what the future will be like with the solution in place.

Let’s go beyond that specific example and dig into a bit more detail for each type, beginning with the more “task-oriented” listeners:

For analytics: Give them a ton of data to support your point of view. When questioned, be specific and concrete and don’t use abstract terms that you can’t define if challenged. Stay away from emotional appeals. Be prepared to spend time and go through your thinking process step by step. Don’t become impatient or try to rush them into a decision. If you need a decision during this presentation, it’s a good idea to send them the handouts ahead of time so they have time to study the issue, and redirect their focus on risk to the risks of not acting. They like to know your credentials. List the pros and cons but be clear about which you support and the reasons for it. They need to ask a lot of questions before they will decide, so allow a lot of time for Q&A.

For drivers: Get right to the point. Give them the bottom line and desired decision right up front and then provide additional information as necessary. When they’ve heard enough, they will stop you. If possible, give them two options and let them show they’re in charge by choosing. The good news about drivers is that your presentations will tend to be short (although not for the best reasons) They like to know your track record. Be specific and direct in your appeal. You won’t have to wait for the formal Q&A to hear their challenges and interruptions and don’t back down when you’re right.

Moving into the “people” side:

For amiables: Keep the human aspect of the proposal in mind at all times. Stress how you’ve run the idea by the relevant stakeholders and obtained their consent. Use social proof (e.g. here’s a list of others who are doing this) Be low-pressure and indirect in your appeals. In the Q&A, listen very carefully to their questions, because if they have concerns they might not want to voice them directly. You may even want to draw concerns out of them since they will be reluctant to bring them up.

For expressives: Keep it moving and lively. Stress your vision for the project. Use stories to capture their imagination. Props can be very useful with expressives to get them involved. They are impatient with too much detail.  Use their names a lot in the presentation. Social proof works, as do stories and analogies. They will respond to passion and emotional appeals. Try to keep control of them in the Q&A because they like to be the center of attention.

If you don’t have the luxury of knowing who the key deciders are or what their preferred style is, it’s better to default to the driver mode, especially with a more senior level audience. Give them your solution up front and then be prepared to back it up with additional support as necessary. Try to keep it conversational and friendly and gauge their reactions to know how much to loosen up.

Finally think about your own preferred style and think carefully about what areas you might need to reinforce. For example, I like to have strong support while keeping it concise, so I’ve had to learn to bring in more stories to pull in the human engagement.

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