Turning Talk into Action

One of the most important sources of waste in communication is the gap between the words and actions, between agreeing and doing. How many times have you left a meeting room after a successful presentation, one in which you knew you presented a strong case and everyone seemed to be in agreement to proceed—and then nothing happened? Somehow when people went back to their desks and got to work, the warm glow wore off and best intentions evaporated like the morning mist.

The hard fact is that the effectiveness of a presentation isn’t measured in terms of applause or good feelings. In lean communication, the only true measure of value is substantive action that improves outcomes, and this article will examine ways to maximize the odds that your audience will follow through on agreements and intentions. As Alfred Adler said, “Life happens at the level of events, not words.”

Although this article focuses on presentations to maximize action, the ideas apply to any persuasive communication opportunity: you get a “hunting license” as an approved vendor, but no orders ensue; you get a subordinate to commit to an improvement plan, but nothing happens; you convince yourself to change, but tomorrow comes and you slip right back into old habits.

Depending on your intent for the presentation, you may not need any of the ideas in this article. What kind of action do you want? There are three ascending levels of agreement: compliance, commitment, or leadership. If it’s simply compliance you’re aiming for, such as permission to proceed and approval of resources, you don’t need to read this; but if you need their active commitment or their enthusiastic willingness to take the baton from you and lead the charge forward, read on.

What does it take?

A presentation is a vehicle for getting things done, and every vehicle needs two things to do its job: motive power and direction. In those two factors lie the keys to ensuring that you get action. Your task is to provide a reason to act, and then a clear path to follow. That’s why the first principle of lean communication is to answer “The Question”: WHAT do you want me to do, and WHY should I do it? It’s that simple, but of course it’s not always easy, so let’s break those two factors down to see what we can do to make them as strong and compelling as possible.


Causes must precede actions, so we start with why. Most sales or internal presentations already have a solid core of sound business logic built into them, so I’m going to assume you already have that covered as your table stakes. But a business case isn’t enough, because those are real people you’re talking to. Here are three ways to make the why even more compelling.

Engage their emotions. No one ever charged up a hill waving a spreadsheet.  Logic is a powerful vehicle for gaining compliance, but commitment requires a different currency. For that, you need to engage the heart as well as the mind. A wonderful story I’ve told before from John Kotter’s book The Heart of Change is about a group that had failed to get traction in its efforts to change the company’s purchasing practices despite a $1 billion business case. They finally got attention—and action—by creating a “mountain” containing 424 pairs of gloves available in their purchasing system![1] Aristotle called it pathos, and it is just as much at home in business presentations as its counterpart logos. You can beef up your pathos by adding stories, analogies, visuals and examples to your “hard facts”.

Tap into intrinsic motivation. Emotion gets attention, but it also wears off, so you also need to inspire your listeners’ intrinsic motivation, so that they will contain within themselves the motivation to act when the time comes. RAMP up your appeal by couching the action in terms of Relationships, Autonomy, Mastery or Purpose.

Make it personal. As Stalin said, “When one man dies it is a tragedy; when a million die it is a statistic,”, which is why fundraisers know that it’s far more powerful to put a face on a victim than to cite impressive statistics. In your pitch, show how the problem is affecting someone they care about—even better, tie it to the specific personal motivations of the individual decision makers in the room.

The next step to clinch their motivation is to answer why now—to show them why it doesn’t make sense to wait. Prospect theory tells us that people are more willing to act or take risks to avoid losses than to strive for gains, so make sure you bring out the consequences of not solving the problem. In fact, in my own training I observe that people tend to spend too much time on touting the benefits of the solution and not enough on the nature and impact of the problem. Especially when your audience is risk-averse, such as in a “we’ve never done it this way” mindset, you can reverse the risk by showing them how inaction is riskier than action.

Scarcity is another powerful persuader which you can invoke by putting time limits on action (as long as they are true and believable). Better yet, is to add a little competitive juice by making it clear that someone else may beat them to it.


Even when the why is obvious and undisputed, the how can trip people up, as the millions of people who want to lose weight can attest. There’s a great story in the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath about how researchers in West Virginia solved the problem. They suggested one single change, asking people to buy low fat milk instead of whole milk. They made the point that a single cup of whole milk contains as much fat as five pieces of bacon, and suggested that people reach for the low fat milk when they went to the supermarket. This simple and clear change raised the market share of low-fat milk from 18% to 41% in the communities where it ran. The campaign worked because it made the intended action clear and easy.

Clarity sells

There are potentially dozens if not hundreds of ways to “reduce calories from fat”, but the sheer range of choice can paralyze action. It’s not only psychologists who know the value of clarity. A study of the GE Work-Out program found that, “…when ideas were presented that were focused and tangible, they were much more often accepted than vague and general recommendations.” So, for example, instead of recommending that you to be clearer in their recommendations, I might suggest that you word your ask in specific and measurable outcomes that a high school sophomore could understand and repeat back to you.[2]

Your listeners must be absolutely clear about what you’re asking them to do. This starts with being clear in your own mind about your presentation purpose before you go in, especially the specific actions you want them to take. While it should go without saying, let me be clear about one more thing: make sure there is no doubt about your ask. Make your ask up front and be sure to repeat it in a confident and assertive manner in your call to action at the end of your presentation.

Make it easy

One of the major contributors to the success of Amazon was its development and patenting of one-click ordering in 1997. You may not be able to make it that easy for others to act, but you should strive as much as possible to reduce barriers to action. Chip and Dan Heath call this tactic “shrinking the change”.

The flip side of this is to make it harder for them to resist. That’s why you should welcome tough questions and objections from the audience; in fact, if you don’t invite them you leave smoldering pockets of resistance and possibly resentment that will flare up after you’re gone.

Another tactic is to get individuals to commit publicly to act, which increases compliance in two ways. First, it puts their credibility at risk if they change their minds and don’t come through and second, it taps into the Cialdini’s consistency principle. But make sure that they commit to something specific, not a vague generality.

Give them control

Most of us hate to be sold, even if we don’t mind buying, so do everything you can to make it the other person’s idea to do what you want them to do. Here I’ll contradict slightly what I said about being very clear about your ask. Even if you’ve made an excellent case for one choice, it helps to have another possible but less attractive choice, or go one step further and use Goldilocks framing to make taking action feel just right.

So here’s my call to action for you: you can be seen as a master of getting things done, unless someone else does it before you do, so next time you present, strengthen your why, your how, or both—it’s your choice!

[1] I wonder how many of the approved vendors of those gloves would have benefited from reading this?

[2] I didn’t say SMART goals, because five adjectives is too difficult to remember—and therefore less likely to happen.


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