Several years ago I got involved in an initiative to try to stop a major development in our neighborhood. In preparation for our own presentations to the city commissioners, I attended a commission meeting to watch residents from another neighborhood as they made presentations to fight a similar project. Speaker after speaker came to the microphone and gave passionate talks about how the greedy developers were threatening the unique quality of their cherished way of life. Every single speaker was genuine, heartfelt, and passionate.
Then I looked over to the dais to see how the commissioners were reacting. With the exception of the mayor, who was forcing himself to act interested, they were all tuned out. They had heard so many of these before that they were just weathering the storm until the speakers were done so that they could get on with their decision. (They approved the development.) The strangest effect of all these passionate presentations was that I found myself starting to take the side of the developers!
As a result of that experience, I coached our presenters to tone down their emotions and focus on facts. We made it less about us and more about how the decision would impact the commissioners. We won.
I think of this incident when I read yet another blog post or tweet from presentations coaches telling you that passion is contagious; that passion trumps all else. They tell us that your passion is contagious—as if transfer of belief is dependent on emotional strength.
Passion definitely has its place, and emotional strength can be a tremendous motivating force. I’m not an emotionless robot, and I certainly can get passionate about many things. Yet I would like to show that in many cases it needs to be dialed back, contained, and even used strategically.
Passion is most effective when the audience is already on your side. If they support your idea but need an extra push to approve it or to take action, then let it all hang out. If you’re delivering a pre-game speech before a hockey game against the Russians, let it all hang out. Your passion can be the fuel that ignites theirs and drives action.
But if you’re making a strategic sales presentation or any business proposal to a committee of high level executives—especially if they’re neutral or skeptical—overt passion can push them in the opposite direction and blind you to legitimate objections and opposing points of view.
Passion can backfire because senior level decision makers pride themselves on analytical thinking and hard-headed business judgment. You can debate whether the reality matches the perception, but the point remains that important business decisions require at least the appearance of rationality. A speaker who comes across as too “emotional” will make them suspicious—they will react by looking for reasons to shoot you down; they may even see it as unprofessional. Passion is very one sided, but research has shown that audiences see two-sided arguments as more persuasive. It’s fine to express a deeply-held belief in your position, as long as you give a nod to alternative points of view. Your demonstration of open-mindedness is likely to be reciprocated.
Secondly, even before you get in front of your audience, your passion for your topic can cause you to violate the most important rule of persuasion: outside-in thinking. It can keep you from considering other perspectives, making it difficult to anticipate questions from your audience. What seems self-evident to you may be news to them.
None of this means that showing passion is always wrong during a strategic presentation, but you should always be strategic about it. Think about where to place it. If it’s too early in the talk you run the risk of shutting down listening. First, show that you’re a reasonable person that has considered everything, next make your logical arguments for why your idea is the best choice, then go ahead and let your passion show through in your closing arguments. Even then, frame your passion for the idea not so much in terms of why you care so much but why they should care as much as you do.