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How to persuade audiences to action

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If you ever have finished a presentation to nothing more than a polite smattering of applause, you probably didn’t start out by asking yourself the right questions. Most communication fails because the speaker isn’t clear, specific or realistic about what he or she wants from the audience. Winning the argument is all well and good, but the ultimate prize is winning audience action, and that takes planning.

When it comes to persuasive communication, if you wander, you are lost. Too often presentations fail to deliver results because they don’t follow a clear path to a concrete call to action.

When planning a presentation, the first step is to be clear about where you want to take your audience and the change you want to see as a result. In a technical note on developing persuasive speech, Conor Neill of the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa at the University of Navarra in Spain explains how to plan and deliver persuasive presentations that get results.

Before thinking about content, Neill writes, it is vital for executives to know what outcome they want from their presentations. It is a good idea to start the planning process by writing, “When I have finished speaking, my audience will... ” and finish that sentence with some specific action.

Vagueness is the enemy, so fuzzy statements like “my audience will understand more about my project” are out. Make the action tangible and compelling, and then build the content around what the audience needs to know, feel and believe about you in order to take that action.

Remember that your goal is not to beat your audience members into submission but to persuade them to take action. Always assume that your audience consists of good, thoughtful people who may not be as familiar with the material as you are. Some may be sceptical, undecided or unsure of your intentions, and it is important to show them respect.

The goal is to convince them that your position is the most viable. Show your understanding of both sides of the argument. If necessary, explain the risks or obstacles of your message and how they can be mitigated or overcome. Use logical, ethical and emotional appeals, as well as a variety of evidence to support your argument. This could include expert testimony, statistics, real-life examples or personal experiences.

What are your audience members’ strategic, personal and business benefits of taking action? What obstacles or barriers might prevent them from doing so? Brainstorming the answers to these questions in advance will help to clarify how you need to bring the audience on board.

Once you have done this, choose the three most important themes — either benefits or obstacles — for this audience. Then set about finding suitable expert testimony and statistics to support each theme.

Successful rhetoric is built on a well-defined and trusted structure. Its components are as follows.

The Grabber

Grab your audience’s attention with an anecdote, a question, a startling statistic or a thought-provoking quotation. Avoid beginning with a joke, which may not seem as funny to them as it does to you, or a yawn-inducing “Hello, my name is ...”

The Message

Follow the grabber with a one-line statement that succinctly tells the audience what your presentation is about. Avoid the temptation of giving too much information here. “I am here to ask for your vote” and “Yes, we can” are fine examples of successful messages.

Signposting

Signposting lays out the skeleton of your argument for the audience. Providing it is as simple as saying, “There are three reasons why you should vote for me: knowledge, ability and passion.”

The Three Benefits

In speaking to persuade, remember to focus on benefits rather than on features. At least 75 per cent of your presentation should be dedicated to developing your three main points. No speech, no matter how long, should have more than three main points. Each benefit or theme should be supported with a careful selection of statistics, demonstrations, examples or personal experiences.

Closure

This section of your presentation is crucial. Sum up your main points in one sentence and give your call to action. This could be a direct close, such as “Visit our website,” or an indirect close that reminds people of the hardship they will endure if they don’t take action. Really powerful speeches reconnect with the beginning of the speech in some way. This also avoids the embarrassment of having to tell the audience that you have finished. The challenge is to have a grabber that allows an easy referral back.

Usain Bolt is not only the fastest man in the world. He also is the fastest man in the world when 80,000 people are watching in the stadium and a billion more are watching live on television. The two are quite different things, as in speaking to a small group and speaking in public are two different things. Like running, public speaking is a performance. Like Bolt, you need to be able to deliver well under pressure and not only under practice conditions.

Having a clear structure and lots of practice are the best ways of helping to lighten the mental load. There are, however, some useful aids to improve your delivery.

First, rather than memorise the whole speech, recreate it from five elements: the first 10 words, the message, the three benefits, the closing and the last 10 words.

Use a webcam to practise gestures as well as phrasing. Be careful to gesture only to emphasise points. Also, be sure to dress in a manner that suits the impression you want to make. Make eye contact with the audience, and use facial expressions to convey your feelings. Enunciate and vary your rate of speech. Don’t speak too fast — it’s not a race. Finally, on the day of the presentation, if you see that you are running out of time, don’t rush to get through everything you’d planned. Instead, move smoothly to your conclusion and wrap up quickly, but not before delivering that all-important call to action.

© 2014 Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa, IESE Universidad de Navarra

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