Free Thinking: The power of persuasion

Martin Shovel
Director
CreativityWorks
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What’s the secret of really great presentations – the ones we remember long after the event, the ones that have the power to change our minds? Martin Shovel investigates the art of persuasion.

Those of us who have to give presentations as part of our work – and let’s face it, these days that’s most of us – know there’s an art to it. It’s not just about the application of ‘presentation skills’, although these are important. There’s something more that marks out a great presenter of ideas – someone capable of changing our minds – but what is it?

Heavy weather
Consider for a moment how you come to make up your mind about something – to form or change your opinion. Let’s take a current example. Most of us have a view – strong or otherwise – about global warming. The other day I caught the end of BBC television programme that featured a run-in between a Daily Mail journalist, who argued that there was no evidence for global warming, and a Guardian journalist whose incredulity at what she was hearing from him rendered her almost speechless.

You might think a debate on this topic between two professional opinion-formers would have left me with a better understanding of the ins and outs of global warming, but it didn’t. Perhaps this was because like me, and most other people, neither of them was a scientist. So, not surprisingly, scientific evidence played little or no part in their attempts to persuade each other.

They concluded their exchange with a thinly veiled personal attack, which had absolutely nothing to do with the pros and cons of the climate change debate. The subtext of what she said was, “surely you can’t believe the nonsense you’re spouting.” And the subtext of his response was, “you’re a sheep just like your fellow Guardian journalists – none of you has a mind of your own.”

So how do you form an opinion?
Was this just an annoying, or amusing, example of people arguing incompetently? Or does it tell us something about how we all form and hold our beliefs? Can many of us honestly say that we make up our minds about things like global warming by carefully evaluating the detail of the various scientific arguments? Or are our opinions based on what we feel is right – rather than what we know, or can demonstrate, to be true?

The link between thinking and feeling
Recent neuroscientific studies on the relationship between emotion and reason suggest that we feel what we know rather than simply think it. Studies of people with damage to the frontal lobes of the brain show that they find it almost impossible to make even the simplest of decisions. This is because the normal link between thinking and feeling is severed. These patients lack any kind of emotional response to the events of everyday life – and as a result they don’t have the usual ‘gut reaction’ (emotional response) that healthy people experience when it comes to making decisions.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes about a patient with this condition who simply couldn’t cope when asked to choose between two alternative dates for his next appointment. The patient’s memory, reasoning skills and general intelligence had been unaffected by his brain injury but because his rationality had to work without emotion, his behaviour resembled that of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.

Damasio describes how for almost half an hour his patient painstakingly enumerated reasons for and against each of the dates. “Previous engagements, proximity to other engagements, possible meteorological conditions, virtually anything that one could reasonably think about concerning a simple date.”*

At last, bursting with frustration, Damasio broke the deadlock by suggesting the second of the two dates. His patient accepted the idea immediately, jotted it into his diary and calmly left Damasio’s office without the least sign of embarrassment.

The feeling of what’s right
Expecting a person with this kind of frontal lobe lesion to make a decision is like asking someone who has lost their sense of taste to choose which is the more delicious of two dishes. A carefully reasoned analysis of ingredients and cooking methods is never going to replace taste buds and a sense of smell.

So could it be that the feeling of what is right comes first and the reasons for it follow like an eager puppy chasing a stick? The Daily Mail journalist’s gibe that everybody on the Guardian agrees about everything may be overstating the case but nevertheless it contains more than a grain of truth. For the most part we tend to mix with like-minded people and follow the advice of experts, and people we like and respect. This insight is the engine of modern public relations and advertising.

But where does this leave us with our presentations? It seems that in order to change people’s minds (whether it’s to persuade them or to educate them, or both) we need to engage with their feelings, and to take account of what makes them tick. The relationship we make with our audience, however fleeting, will be central to how our message is received by them. It isn’t enough just to present facts, ideas and arguments – your audience needs to feel they can trust you before they will allow you to influence their thinking – and possibly even change their minds.

* Martin Shovel is co-director of CreativityWorks, a learning consultancy that transforms people into more effective thinkers and communicators by developing their visual thinking abilities. Find out more by visiting www.creativityworks.net

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