Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Problem with Passion

Too much passion can damage your credibility

A common theme among most presentation books and blogs is the importance of having and displaying passion for your topic. We’re told that passion excites and engages audiences and furnishes you with the fire to be strong and credible. And they’re mostly right: when you’re trying to instill a vision, motivate your listeners or inspire them to act on their beliefs, your passion may be the crucial ingredient that makes the difference.

But everything good comes with a cost, and too much passion can damage your credibility and effectiveness, especially for certain types of business presentations, for example when you’re trying to get a proposal approved internally, or selling a complex business solution to a key customer.

They’re Not That into You

The first problem is that passion makes it all about you, and one of the key principles of persuasive communication is that it’s never about you—it’s about the other person, the one you are trying to persuade. If you focus too much on why you care about the topic and how important it is to you, there’s very little room for what’s important to your listeners. In fact, the more passion you bring the less likely you will make it about the other person.

Persuasion is about reaching common ground with your listeners by building bridges from their point of view to yours. If you don’t know what’s important to your listeners, or you can’t take their perspective, it’s going to be difficult to figure out where and how that bridge can be built. Too much passion can blind you to opposing points of view. Research has shown that intelligent audiences respond more readily to two-sided arguments, which the passionate proponents of one point of view are unlikely to make.

Being too wrapped up into your own point of view will also hurt you during the Q&A, first because it makes it difficult for you to prepare by thinking of any reasons someone could be against you, and during the questioning itself it can be a bar to listening to their questions and empathizing with their objections.

Raising their Defenses

Emotions can be contagious, but they can also create their own defenses. That’s why passion is especially dangerous when your audience is made up of senior level decision makers. They have attended so many presentations in which passionate proponents have tried to sway them that they’re professionally immune to passion. In fact, they’ve created mental antibodies that react negatively against it. They will either tune you or take an extra hard look at the evidence you bring to support it.

I saw this once when I attended a Fort Lauderdale City Commission meeting where residents were trying to fight a large building planned on the edge of their neighborhood. As each speaker came up and got progressively more emotional, I could see the listeners on the dais withdraw into themselves, to the point where only the mayor was making a pretense of paying any attention.

To senior leaders, passion can also be read as “not a team player”. They appreciate your commitment to your project or proposal, but they also have a higher and wider line of sight into what’s important for the business, and they respect subordinates who understand that.

Conviction not Passion

Do you still want to bring a strong belief to your presentations? Of course, but it should be grounded in solid facts and evidence and be soundly reasoned while being open to the other person’s point of view. There’s a word for that: conviction.

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