Presenting to a skeptical or hostile audience is usually a very bad idea, and strategic presenters do everything possible to shape opinions and gain supporters before the actual event. If you can’t do that, it’s often a good idea to “lose early”, because failed persuasion attempts often make the intended target even more committed to their original positions.
Yet, in real life you can’t always choose your battles. The prospect may be so high profile that you have to at least go down swinging, or you may have an important project that you’re trying to obtain funding for internally. In this situation, you will need to put away your standard structures and deploy an indirect approach that will to maximize your chances of success. I call it the USE structure, which stands for understand, small agreement, explanation.
With most presentations to high level decision makers, it’s a good idea to give them your bottom line up front; it works because it reinforces an existing level of shared understanding. That shared understanding is precisely what’s missing with a skeptical audience, so it’s exactly the wrong approach to take with skeptics. If you do, their likely reactions will be either to ignore you or to begin formulating counterarguments in their mind as they listen. If that happens at the beginning of your presentation, nothing you say afterwards is going to help.
The most important principle is to begin with something they agree with. If you think of yourself and your audience standing on opposite sides of a chasm, you can’t yell across the gulf and compel them to cross over—you have to cross over and get them. That means you begin from their point of view and work backward: What parts of it are non-negotiable? What parts are based on incorrect or incomplete information? What has changed since they formed their opinion? As Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”
(One side benefit of this is that, by taking their perspective, you might learn something that improves your own perspective or position. It will also help you to temper your goals for the presentation. Because minds can usually only be changed a little at a time, aim for something challenging but attainable.)
By starting with their point of view, you’re showing yourself to be reasonable and well-informed. You’re also enlisting the persuasive power of similarity (showing you’re like them) and reciprocity (give them the gift of understanding and they are more likely to give it back). Besides, you may surprise them a little bit, which definitely helps get their attention.
It’s not enough to thoroughly research and understand their point of view; you also have to show that you understand their point of view, by articulating their position as well as they can. For excellent demonstrations of this, check out any editorial in The Economist.
So, you’ve crossed the chasm to their side and now you want to bring them over to yours, but the chasm is usually too wide to cross in a single jump. You need to get them to a safe position somewhere in the middle. You do this by getting them to agree to a smaller point, which then makes it possible to cross the rest of the way. When opposing sides see the situation in pure black and white, the only way for them to agree is for one side to “lose”. When the issue is what shade of grey you’re talking about, there is scope for agreement.
Here are three of the many ways to get a small agreement:
Reframe: Reframing is about getting them to look at a different aspect of the situation than the one they are focusing on. For example, in sales presentations, one of the most common sources of skepticism may be that your solution is perceived as too expensive. Your job would be to change the frame: maybe to look at the total lifetime costs rather than the upfront price; or reframe it as an investment so that they will focus on the return instead of the cost.
Change the analogy: Everyone reasons by analogy—that’s the essence of learning from experience. The trick is to understand the analogies your audience is using to view your proposal, and then either stress the differences between that situation and this one, or get them to substitute a different analogy. When presenting to customers, the most powerful analogies are those that compare your approach to the way that they do business.
Reversal: This is a form of verbal jiu-jitsu which uses the weight of their own argument to lead them where you want them to go. “You’re right: we did have problems with the last implementation. But because we learned from it, that’s what makes us the best qualified to make sure it goes exactly right this time.”
There’s not much to say here, because you will know your own best reasons that support your position. Just make sure that what you say in this part of your presentation connects to the “US” part. I’ve seen too many presentations where the presenter did a great job showing empathy and understanding for the audience’s point of view, then ruined it by merely bolting on something generic at the end.
In summary, it may be uncomfortable to contemplate presenting to a hostile audience, but you will have no greater satisfaction than winning them over, when you USE the right approach.