Persuasive communication - Presentations

Make Them Think

“I know what I was feelin’, but what was I thinkin’?”

Dierks Bentley


Is thinking going out of style? It seems by what is being written about presentations and persuasive communication in general today, that the answer is yes. We’re told that we have to appeal to the emotional brain, that EQ is more important than IQ, that stories are all that matter in persuasion. One of the top-selling persuasion books is Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion . I actually have a love-hate relationship with that book; I love it because it’s filled with excellent research and easy-to-follow principles for increasing your personal influence; I hate it because it reduces persuasion to the manipulation of cues[1] that people automatically respond to.

The technical terms are central versus peripheral processing. When a car ad shows a beautiful model, that’s a peripheral argument; when it touts fuel efficiency, that’s a central argument; when it shows a cute baby in a child seat and explains a list of safety features, that’s a combination of the two.

I’m not advocating one way as being better than another in all situations. Our thinking processes are complicated, messy, and incompletely understood. Besides, people differ in their “need for cognition.” Some people like to think deeply, carefully and analytically about things before deciding, and others like to trust their gut. This is not about intelligence: sometimes those with higher IQs are the least likely to need cognition.

But, in business persuasion, in which you’re trying to influence the behavior of a reasonably well-educated adult, approaches that focus primarily on emotional engagement can sometimes be insulting to the intelligence of your audience, and on some occasions are even dishonest. (If you can’t convince them with logic, but you can tug at their heartstrings, maybe you shouldn’t be trying to convince them of it in the first place.) The other problem with emotional arguments and cues is that emotions wear off. Have you ever made an impulse buy, only to wonder a few days later what the hell you were thinking? A decision or impression made under the sway of a compelling presentation may be difficult to explain a week or two later, when a committee gets together to make a decision. In addition, as Steve Booth-Butterfield tells us, “Change achieved through the central route is more persistent over time, more resistant to counter-arguments, and more predictive of future behavior than change from the peripheral route.” It makes sense: minds changed on a whim can be just as easily changed back.

In many situations, people do make decisions largely on their unconscious response to cues that they might or might not be aware of, and then justify them with logical reasons later on. If they’re already on your side, or if what you are trying to sell lines up with one or more of Cialdini’s cues, and if they’re going to make a decision right then, there’s probably no reason to get them thinking too much.

But usually when you’re trying to persuade someone about something important, you’re trying to effect change, which means that you have to change the thinking that led to the current situation. Before you can change thinking, you have to engage thinking. Everyone will think deeply when they have a good reason to. Here are some ways:

Make it personally relevant. Even people who have a low need for cognition will take the time to consider logical arguments if it is personally relevant to them. If you’re making a presentation, you must analyze your audience in retail not wholesale. Even if the business need is the same, everyone in the room has a different personal stake in the outcome, and if you address it early in the presentation you stand a good chance of having an engaged and thoughtful listener.

Ask questions. One of the surest ways to know that you’ve made someone think carefully is when the say “good question”, and then pause to search for a quality answer; even better is when they don’t know the answer, and realize it’s important. A question that shows that you have researched their situation or that you have specialized knowledge has the added benefit of building your credibility. Questions are also a non-threatening way to get them to change their perspective. For example, those of us who sell training are always dealing with the understandable demand by potential buyers to cut corners in the time it takes to run a class. My friend Gary has an excellent response when asked if he can take a day off the course length: “Do you want me to teach it, or do you want them to learn it?”

Break a pattern. It’s easy to stay on mental autopilot when everything is going as expected. If you want them to engage their thinking processes, you sometimes have to break a pattern. Give them new information, use humor, etc. One of the best ways to break expectations is to use humor to change their perspective. The essence of humor is surprise, by getting people to see a side of the issue that they never would have thought of, but which seems obvious when pointed out.

Make it easier for them. This is not about dumbing down something, but sometimes you have to take the time to clarify a complex idea for others. Strip out the jargon and the unnecessary detail, and build off something they already know. Analogies are very helpful for this.

Make it safe to open their minds. If you immediately launch into an attack on their point of view, they will probably shut down immediately. Acknowledge their position, and show that you understand why they think that way. In this way, you can earn the right to be heard.


[1] Cialdini’s six cues are: Reciprocity, likeability, consistency, authority, social proof, and scarcity.

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