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The four golden rules of persuasive presentations

21st Sep 2015
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Paul Carroll gives us some simple presentation tips.

When it comes to persuading your audience while delivering a training presentation or pitching to a client, there are really only four golden rules - but what they lack in quantity they make up for in importance:

Make sense and be brief

You may remember the saying 'I wanted to write you a short letter but I didn't have time so I wrote a long one.' Brevity takes work but it has its advantages for your audience and for you. First, it cuts right through to the message for your audience, and the exercise forces you to focus on the most important parts of your message. It gives you concision. If you're trying to convince or persuade, if you want people to do something, you've got to make it clear to them what it is. 

For example, I once helped organise some of my neighbours into a clean-up of our local park. It’s a beautiful space for families and individuals to enjoy, but it was marred by litter (lots of it).

I used the following points to help me persuade the community to take part.

Structure

Each point should lead logically to the next point. Solved problems are less interesting. They arouse less emotion. If you want to get your audience to do things you should present them with the problem first. Establish that the problem is real and that it's their problem. This puts the idea into their heads that something ought to be done. Then you can tell them that you've got the solution to the problem. lf you start with a solved problem you might not get the emotional engagement which compels people to action. It’s no coincidence that many successful politicians trained as lawyers. They’re educated in building a case in logical steps.

Include facts and figures, but also anecdotes with individual characters. Computer files store all the stats you like. People store stories. In the case of persuading my neighbours to help with the park clean-up voluntarily, I described an idyllic Sunday afternoon in the park, enjoying the sun, absorbed in my favourite novelist when—WHACK!!!—I was hit in the face by a plastic carrier-bag. A carrier bag which had been in the dirt and trodden on.  

Veteran broadcast journalist Alistair Cooke said “No matter what you're talking about--gardening, economics, murder--you're telling a story. Every sentence should lead to the next sentence. If you say a dull sentence, people have a right to switch off."

Once the audience understood the problem I gave them the solution. One of the organisers of the clean-up volunteers was a retired business manager who drew up a rota which required a large number of volunteers to spend a small amount of time each going through the park to pick up litter. Thus, nobody would be burdened with a virtual second, and unpaid, job. 

You must answer the question inside the heads of your audience; WIIFM (or What's In It For Me?). The easiest way to persuade people to do what you want is to show them that it's in their interest. 

In the case of the park clean-up, I rounded up by painting another word-picture of an idyllic Sunday afternoon in a beautiful park with no mess, no litter and no carrier bags in the face. Then came the pitch.

Make sure it's something you can believe yourself. In the case of the park clean up, it was. If you don’t sound convinced yourself, you won’t be convincing. You should write the way you speak. Remember you're preparing yourself to give a spoken presentation: sounding as if you're reading a report is less convincing because it won't quite sound like you. 

Be clear what you want people to do and ask them to do it

I closed by presenting them with signup sheets and asked them to commit to two half-hours each. If you’re vague about what you want people to do, they won’t do anything. Even people who are willing to help you won’t do anything if you’re not precise. They will be inclined to think 'She’s right about that' but not inclined to undertake a non-specific action. By being clear about what you want them to do and then making it easy for them to commit (e.g. by presenting the signup sheets rather than saying 'See our website for volunteering opportunities') you’ll get more commitment. 

A favour 

Whilst it may seem counterintuitive to ask a favour of someone who dislikes you, it may actually help you to build a better relationship. As long ago as the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin wrote “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” In other words, someone who has done a favour for you now has an emotional investment in you, whether he’s conscious of it or not.  

Franklin’s homespun wisdom has been backed by more modern research. "Like all human beings, people who comply with requests unconsciously generate justifications for their actions. ‘If I granted this person’s request, I must like him,’ is basically how the unspoken thought process works. So rather than feeling resentment, the person who complies with a request ends up feeling good about the asker. In fact, research suggests that the best method for smoothing over a conflict with someone may not be to offer help, but to ask for help. The target of the request is likely to comply, the justification process will follow, and feelings of positivity will start to restore the relationship." (Harvard Business Review).

By following these four golden rules you can be sure you’ll have to the best chance of persuading your audience to take action – whether it’s to support a voluntary project, take on board new actions, or engage your business.

Paul Carroll is from Toastmasters International, a nonprofit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organisation’s membership exceeds 313,000 in more than 14,650 clubs in 126 countries.To find your local club: www.toastmasters.org.> Follow @Toastmasters on Twitte

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