persuasionWe can’t reason people out of beliefs, opinions, judgments, prejudices, and behaviors that they didn’t reason themselves into.

We can’t change people’s ways of thinking and acting simply by giving them new information and leading them step by step through a logical process of analysis and understanding.

We can’t, in short, persuade people to change by logic and reasoning.

There are two main reasons for this.

First, we form our basic beliefs and behavior patterns as children, when our ability to reason is underdeveloped, if not entirely lacking. For the most part we adopt, without thinking, the beliefs and behaviors of those around us.

When we question our beliefs and behaviors later in life—if we question them at all—we’re still inclined to give them credence. Reinforced by habit, they “feel” right, natural, proper.

And second, we aren’t rational beings. At least, rationality isn’t our primary way of understanding and relating to the world.

The process of reasoning—gathering and assessing information, questioning assumptions, forming opinions, analyzing them and revising them when necessary—doesn’t come naturally to us. It’s a skill we have to learn.

Reasoning takes time and effort. And in a world that comes at us like a Mack truck, at a thousand miles an hour, with horns blaring, demanding an immediate response, we tend not to reflect but to react.

We don’t say, “Whoa, hold your horses. Give me some time to think this through.” We don’t, in short, reason our way through each new situation. We fall back on our tried and true ways of understanding the world and of coping with its incessant and clamorous demands.

I’m not arguing in favor of abandoning reason and logic.

I am proposing that if persuasion is our goal—if we want to change how people think and feel and act—we have to develop strategies and techniques that build on something more than reason and logic.

The question, of course, is how? Any suggestions?

persuasionThe US presidential campaign dragged on seemingly forever. And it was–even by political standards–ugly, dirty, and mean spirited. I’m glad it’s over.

I wish I could draw some positive lessons about public speaking and persuasion from either of the candidate’s speeches, but I can’t. I was largely uninspired by Clinton’s speeches. I was appalled by Trump’s rhetoric.

What concerns me most–as a citizen and, more specifically, as a speechwriter–is how frequently and effortlessly misinformation, distortions, and flat-out lies were asserted, only to be refuted (by those pesky little fact checkers) and then repeated.

It’s no surprise that the Oxford English Dictionary selected post-truth as the international word of the year for 2016.

Post-truth: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

“Appeals to emotion and personal belief” have always played a key role in persuasive public speaking. Over 2,500 years ago Aristotle identified three proofs of a persuasive speech:

  1. Ethos: The character and knowledge of the speaker
  2. Pathos: Appeals to the audience’s emotions, interests, and imagination
  3. Logos: The clarity of the message’s logic and the evidence put forth to support it

In this recent election pathos was the clear winner. Ethos and logos were almost nowhere to be found.

In future posts I’ll examine why pathos was so dominant. I’ll draw some lessons about the use of pathos in public speaking and persuasion. And I’ll point out why in non-political arenas pathos, divorced from ethos and logos, is not only ineffective, but calamitous.

What makes a speech bad?A bad speech can be bad in two ways.

It all depends on how you define bad.

Bad can mean of inferior quality, or defective, failing to measure up to standards, unpleasing, or unable to perform as required.

Think of a bad wine, or a bad movie, or a bad performance.

A bad speech, using this definition of bad, is ineffective. It fails to accomplish its objective.

A speech can be bad for any number of reasons:

  • It lacks unity and cohesion.
  • It fails to address the needs and concerns of the audience.
  • It is confusing, illogical, or boring.
  • It relies on poorly designed visual aids or fails to use them when appropriate.
  • It is poorly staged and delivered.

Bad can also mean morally deficient, repugnant, evil, wrong.

We often shy away from using bad in this sense, afraid of sounding judgmental or ceding the term to preachers and pundits who see evil everywhere they look.

But I think that some ideas—many ideas—are bad and deserve to be labelled as such.

If an idea can be bad—immoral, reprehensible, worthy of censure—a speech that advocates it is, by extension, bad.

I hate to go there, but Hitler is the best example of what I mean.

His speeches were good in the sense that they achieved their objective. And they were bad—demonstratively and monstrously evil—because the ideas they advocated so effectively were bad.

To judge a speech in this sense—to weight its moral worth—requires us to clarify our values and the way we determine right and wrong.

When I think of a bad speech, in this sense, I think of one that distorts the truth, plays on an audience’s prejudices, focuses their attention on trivialities, justifies injustice, and targets the weak and vulnerable.

What do you think makes a bad speech bad?

Bring about changeWhen speaking to promote change, resist the urge to attack the status quo or its supporters.

The only reason to give a speech is to promote change of some sort: a change in how people think or feel or, more importantly, act.

If you’re happy with the status quo and you want people to keep on doing what they’ve been doing, don’t give a speech. Throw a party.

The underlying message of a speech promoting change always comes down to this: the new vision, initiative, product, service, behavior you’re proposing is better that what already exists.

How do you talk down the status quo without belittling those who had a part in bringing it about or who have a stake in maintaining it?

(When the status quo is clearly unjust, cruel, or oppressive, it may be honorable and brave to confront head on those who created and seek to perpetuate it.)

But in most cases assailing the supporters of the status turns them into opponents and hardens their resistance.

Do this instead. Demonstrate how the current problems or deficiencies–the status quo you wish to change–are rooted not in past mistakes but in subsequent changes.

Don’t say, “We’re having problems in the finance department because my predecessor [the current CFO] purchased an inferior accounting software program.”

Say something like, “When we purchased our current accounting software, it was highly rated. But in the intervening years, technological advances and our increasingly complex requirements have made it inadequate for our needs.”

Make it your goal to bring about the change you believe in, not to denigrate the status quo or vilify its supporters.

aconym hellAcronyms have their place and usefulness  in a technical presentation as long as–and only if–your audience understands them.

An acronym is formed from the first letters of other words and is treated and pronounced as if it were a word. Like NATO (North American Treaty Organization) or WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant).

Most things we call acronyms are, to be technical, initialisms: abbreviations formed by the first letters of each word in a phrase. Like FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation)  or ATM (Automated Teller Machine).

I’m not that technical so, like most people, I’m going to lump initialisms together with acronyms and treat them the same.

The common advice for people giving technical presentations is to spell out acronyms if your audience doesn’t know them.

There’s no need to spell out an acronym if you’re sure your audience knows what it means. When you’re addressing other technical experts, spelling out a commonly understood acronym only makes you sound silly or condescending.

And don’t spell out an acronym that is more commonly known as an acronym than the series of words it’s made up of. People know what an ATM is. They may have to think twice if you call it an automated teller machine.

Instead of spelling out an acronym, define it.

Spelling out an acronym doesn’t always make it any clearer.

For example, if you simply say that GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems, you haven’t clarified matters much.

It’s better to say something like, “GIS, a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface…” (from http://nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/geographic-information-system-gis/)

Explanations make acronyms clearer, but sometimes–depending on your audience’s knowledge (or lack of it)–you need to go one step further.

After explaining an acronym, give an example.

After defining GIS you might say, “It’s because of GIS that you can see where the nearest Starbucks is on Google Maps and you can monitor a hurricane making its way toward land.”

If you really need the audience to understand the acronym–if it’s an important part of what you’re talking about–first spell it out, then define it, and finally give an example of it.

 

Photo courtesy of Xavier  Verges at Flick https://www.flickr.com/photos/xverges/

© Abdone | Dreamstime Stock PhotosVirtual meetings—by telephone or web services—have become commonplace in business these days.

On the plus side, they allow people to participate from anyplace in the world as long as they have a phone or an internet connection. And they cut down travel time and expenses.

On the minus side, they make communication more difficult. Most of the time you can’t see other people, making it harder to know who is going to speak when, and eliminating the ability to read people’s body language. And distractions—checking email, for example, or cleaning off your desk—become more tempting.

Whether you like them or not, virtual meetings are here to stay.

Here’s How to Make the Most of Virtual Meetings

  1. Plan
    Send out an agenda in advance with all the other required information (date and time, dial-in number, pass codes, etc.).
  1. Start on Time
    Identify all the participants at the beginning.
  1. Work through the Agenda
    Clearly state which item you are addressing, and address each item in the order on your agenda.
  1. Reduce Distractions
    Ask people for their attention throughout the meeting. Don’t waste their time. Don’t prolong discussions. Keep the discussion focused and moving along.
  1. Identify Yourself before Talking
  2. Make Yourself Heard
    If you’re using a phone, call in from a quiet place. Mute your phone when you’re not speaking. If you’re in a conference room with a speaker phone, speak directly into the phone and loudly.
  1. Be Extra Communicative
    Because other participants won’t be able to see your body language and facial expressions, you have to work harder to communicate what you mean, what you want, what you feel.
  1. Conclude on Time
    Take a few minutes to review the accomplishments of the meeting, to discuss action items, and to thank people for their time and participation.

Someday technology may improve–it’s not there yet–so that virtual meetings become as free and easy as face-to-face meetings. In the meantime, use these guidelines to make the most of them.

What’s your experience with virtual meetings? What helps you make the most of them?

You may also be interested in Technical Presentations at a Business Meeting.

Photo courtesy of © Abdone | Dreamstime Stock Photos.

 

Lincoln used long sentences in his speeches.I often hear it said that speakers should keep their sentences short.

Such advice is, in my opinion, a mistake.

It’s true that short sentences tend to be simple, and simplicity can be the servant of clarity. But clarity is the goal, not simplicity.

If you say speakers should keep their sentences clear—immediately comprehensible, able to be understood by their audiences on first hearing—I’m in total agreement.

But I believe in the value, beauty, and usefulness of long sentences in a speech.

Consider some of the masters:

Lincoln:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” (75 words)

Churchill:
“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” (141 words)

Kennedy:
“Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation,” a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” (67 words)

Long sentences piled one on top of the other can grow tedious, so it’s best to intersperse them with shorter sentences.

But long sentences have several benefits.

1. Long sentences are better able to address complexity.

The world we live in and the problems we face are complex, and we do ourselves and our audiences little justice by reducing our response to them to short and simple epigrams.

2. Long sentences are more pleasing.

Short sentences have a certain pizzazz. (“Read my lips: no new taxes.”) But they quickly grow tiresome. And they lack the pleasure that longer sentences make possible, sentences that add detail and richness, step by step, sentences that have a rhythm and build to a satisfying conclusion.

3. Long sentences are more revelatory of a speaker’s character.

Long sentences provide more information, and in doing so give greater insight into the working of the speaker’s mind, into their reasoning, their values, their understanding.

Agree or disagree? (Feel free to respond in short or long sentences.)

 

Once again I was asked to help someone deliver a presentation using a PowerPoint slide deck prepared by another person.

And once again I found it a thankless, futile, frustrating task.

And I’ve come to this conclusion:

Don’t give a presentation using PowerPoint slides that you didn’t have a role in creating yourself.

It doesn’t work for any number of reasons.

First, most PowerPoint slide decks are a mess that need to be revised.

Individual slides are frequently poorly designed. Each slide on its own is usually crammed full of too much information and too many words. Individual slides don’t present, explain, and illustrate one central idea.

And individual slides frequently fail to build a coherent story. They are simply tacked on one after another, as if they are free-standing ideas.

PowerPoint slide decks often–almost always–need to be clarified, simplified, and rearranged. And you often only know how to do so when you’re rehearing your presentation.

When you’re presenting a slide deck that you’ve created on your own, you are free to clean up your slides or to rearrange them so they make more sense. But when you’re given a slide deck and told to present it as best you can, you’re left trying to make sense of a mess.

It’s okay for someone to create slides for you, as long as you are given the time, knowledge, and authority to change them.

Second, presenting someone else’s slides puts you in a subordinate role.

There is–or there should be–an intimate connection between you and the message you’re delivering.

Presenting someone else’s material makes you a mouthpiece, a marionette, nothing more.

If you can’t own the slides, you can’t own the message. Which is never a good thing.

Third, presenting someone else’s slides makes you focus more on the message than on the audience.

PowerPoint slides are not, nor should they be, a script. The words and images on the screen should be a prompt for what you are going to say. They should enable a conversation between you and your audience.

But when you’re given a slide deck that is created by someone else and that is a mess (see above), you have to figure out how to make sense of what you yourself don’t understand. (Sometimes you’re given a script in the notes page, which doesn’t clarify a thing.)

So you go over your script again and again to make sure you say what you think you’re meant to say. Your focus, too often, is on being true to the message created by someone else, when you should be trying to help the audience understand and accept your ideas.

Don’t give a presentation based entirely on slides created by someone else without your input. And don’t create slides for someone else to present without involving them in a meaningful way.

 

See also When Not to Use PowerPoint.

Ttalk fastechnical experts complain that the people in charge don’t listen to them.

The people in charge complain that technical experts go into too much detail and take too long to get to the point, if they even have one.

Because the people in charge have the final say — that’s what being in charge means — it’s up to the technical experts to change.

If you’re a technical expert and you want your ideas to get a hearing or, better yet, to be understood, accepted, and implemented, you have to change the way you make presentations.

The best way to win support for your idea is to think long and slow (which you’re good at) and to speak fast (which isn’t your typical style).

When I say “speak fast,” I don’t mean that you have to pick up the pace of your delivery, although that may be helpful.

You don’t have to talk like a New York taxi driver who has had one too many cups of coffee.

To speak fast means to get to your point as quickly as possible and to take as little time as necessary to make your case.

The higher leaders rise in an organization, the less time they have. The more impatient they become. The less willing they are to wade through long and overly detailed presentations.

So do your research, analysis, thinking, planning, and preparation — your long and slow thinking — before your presentation.

Then develop one idea that you can present quickly.

Depending on the leaders involved, on their needs, and on their schedule, I recommend preparing and practicing three fast versions of the same presentation:

  1. The Micro-Pitch — 30 Seconds or Less
    The micro-pitch is your presentation in a nutshell: the summary of your main idea. It may sound something like, “I propose adopting a new technology, which is faster and more accurate than what we currently have and will save us money.”
  2. The Mini-Pitch — 3 to 5 Minutes
    If you’re given the time, flesh out the information or ideas you presented in the micro-pitch. So you may explain (briefly) what the new technology is, and what makes it faster, more accurate, and cheaper.
  3. The Pitch-in-Full — Up to 15 minutes
    When speaking to upper management, you rarely have more than 15 minutes. (They’re busy, remember, and their time is limited.) If they give you 15 minutes on the agenda, plan on speaking for 8 to ten minutes. Leave the rest of time free for discussion.

The idea behind speaking fast is to address the most important matters first. And present the least amount of information — not the most — required to gain acceptance for your idea.

Give leaders what they want — information and ideas they can use to help the organization achieve its business objectives. Give it to them fast.

Think long and slow. Speak fast.

 

 

The Idea or the StructureWhen crafting a speech, do you start with an idea or with a structure, with content or with form?

Some Say “Start with an Idea”

There are those who argue, powerfully in my opinion, in favor of beginning the speech writing process with an idea.

They have a point: Any speech worth its salt is built around an idea.

One would hope that the idea being presented is coherent, insightful, supported by reason and evidence, emotionally engaging, and relevant to the audience. Which is, sadly, not always the case, especially in political discourse these days.

As a speech writer, after a preliminary conversation, I ask my clients, “What do you want to talk about?” And then I follow up with the more substantive question, “What do you want to say about it?”

The first question–what do you want to talk about?–simply defines the topic. It could be something like climate change, a recent threat to the company’s future, a new policy or procedure.

The follow-up question–what do you want to say about it?–lays out an idea about that topic: the content of the speech. For example, this is what climate change is, this is what it means for us, and this is what we should do about it.

A speech is nothing without an idea. It’s like a beautifully wrapped package that’s completely empty.

So it seems right to start with an idea.

Others Say “Start with a Structure”

On the other hand, there are those who argue–and I’m beginning to adopt their position–in favor of starting with a speech’s structure.

Speeches are a way of structuring an idea, of presenting it clearly and persuasively.

Most speeches–98.2% of them–follow a form, a structure: they begin with an introduction, proceed through the body, and end with a conclusion. (I made up that statistic, by the way, so please don’t ask me to cite my source.)

Within that basic structure, there are other ways of structuring a speech.

You can use the “They Say/I Say” structure, a variation of which I’m using in this piece. Or the “Problem/Cause/Solution” structure. Or the “Past/Present/Future” structure. Or the “Where We Want to Go/Why We Want to Get There/How We Can Get There” structure.

And certain kinds of speeches necessitate certain structures. A keynote address takes a different form, from example, than a panel discussion.

Knowing how to structure a speech shapes the idea being presented.

Structures may not generate a specific idea for a speech, but they do make possible the meaning of any idea.

A speech without a structure is, like a drunkard’s monologue, incomprehensible and tiring, or, like Macbeth’s view of life, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

So it makes sense to begin with a structure.

I Say “It Depends”

I favor starting with a structure. I agree with those who believe that you can’t even begin formulating an idea without structuring it.

But here’s where the it depends comes in.

Experienced speakers and speechwriters can begin by focusing on the idea they want to develop, because they intuitively think in terms of how they are going to structure it. They create a structure as they think about the speech’s idea.

But beginning speakers should start crafting a speech by choosing a structure that will work for them, a structure that forces them to formulate and express their ideas in a meaningful and moving way.

What do you think?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...