Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard. And most of the time, a single presentation has the power to convert you idea to reality. Here’s how to persuade the people who have the power to approve your idea or let it die through incredibly persuasive presentations.
I found myself freelancing as a photographer for an event in 2016. At the time my life was turbulent, and existential questions crept up on me like acquaintances I bump into in public transport but don’t want to interrupt the podcast I am listening to for. They came up at random times, too. While picking avocados at the supermarket: “What is my purpose?” While doing the dishes: “How do successful people end up where they are?” While standing in a bus packed like a sardines can: “Do I know what I am doing?
That last question was a particularly annoying acquaintance that stalked me everywhere I went. Perhaps it related to my life being turbulent at the time, or perhaps it related to the career change I’ve been mulling over for months. But whatever the reason was, the question followed me to the event I was photographing too, nagging: “Do I know what I am doing? Do I? Do I?”
This time, it came with answers.
The art of persuasion
There is something about photographing an event. The agenda is packed with activities, there is a lot of chatter, a lot of small talk, a lot of things going on; and there you are—almost invisible—taking everything in like a fly on the wall.
One of the keynote speakers at the event was a presentation expert. Self-proclaimed, I came to realize. But not that it mattered. Be it empty words or sound advice, he carried himself like an all-knowing leader and commanded the room like he was Steve Jobs presenting the iPhone for the first time. But he wasn’t presenting the latest piece of tech to topple all tech, he was presenting presentations. What to put in slides. What not to put in slides. How to talk. How not to talk. Ideas backed by unnamed academic studies done by unnamed researchers, so he says.
Just like that, my annoying acquaintance of a reoccurring existential question was answered: Do I know what I am doing? Not exactly. But neither does this guy. Nor anyone, for that matter.
The art of persuasion is a funny thing.
Take this presentation expert. Philosophy major, debater, asks the audience for their opinion and yet topples them with his “research”. The audience believed his words because he, himself, believed them. Is his knowledge up to par with that of Nancy Duarte or Dorie Clark?
That’s the art of persuasion. It’s the art of getting others to see things as you see them. Human behavior is yanked and pulled by different forms of persuasion in the day-to-day. Everyday we persuade and are persuaded, consciously or not. And yet, when it comes to situations where it matters, many of us fall flat — like when presenting ideas to key stakeholders at work, or arguing for why we need a self-driving car.
The corporate world is like Game of Thrones, except that navigating your way around it is less dangerous than navigating your way around Westeros; and the gory character deaths are “scaled down” to the gory deaths of ideas. (Not that that is any easier)
Here’s the thing: your new idea is useless unless you know how to sell it.
So if you don’t want your idea to suffer a terrible fate, you need to make sure that it is communicated well. In the Game of Thrones of the corporate world, you need to be able to persuade the right stakeholders at the right time with the right pitch. And if you cannot carry yourself like Steve Jobs or Martin Luther King just yer, a well-outlined presentation could take you there.
As Nancy Duarte said: “Presentations have the power to change the world when you communicate effectively through them”
So learn to communicate effectively through them.
The 6 Musts for Persuasive Presentations
When there is a lot at stake, you want to make sure that your presentation helps you land your goal. As Dorie Clark put it in her Harvard Business Review article A Checklist for More Persuasive Presentations:
“To persuade the people who have the power to approve your idea or let it die, you need to start with a strong outline”
A good presentation could make the difference between being heard and being dismissed. And a good outline could make the difference between a persuasive presentation and an unconvincing one.
How can you structure a presentation that defuses potential objections upfront and is so compelling? Ask yourself these 6 questions by Dorie Clark:
1. What’s the problem you’re solving?
Explain the context and why it matters. If you have been working on a project for a really long time, chances are you know it like the back of your hand and refer to it like it’s your first born child that you have talked about tirelessly at work. Except that it isn’t your first born child, and more often than not, the stakeholders that you have to persuade have not followed the progress of your project as you have, if at all.
Persuasive presentations address the context and why it matters up front. If you don’t, you risk stakeholders tuning out because they are not sure if your idea is relevant.
2. Why now?
Explain why this is the moment they should change what’s been working. So you have established that your problem is relevant. Maybe the stakeholders have established its relevance a long time ago — but why should they act now?
You need to explain the urgency of your problem and show them the cost of not taking action. Otherwise, they might stow your idea away in a file cabinet, if it isn’t there already.
3. How has the idea been vetted?
Highlight evidence of your competence and the seriousness with which you pursued this solution. And no, this does not mean that you should brag about your work and cite a litany of your accomplishments. It means increasing the credibility of your work by showing them how you went about your research. Mention that you interviewed 100 leading researchers to identify the best practice that you are recommending, or that you ran three test pilots to test the concepts.
4. Have you simplified the structure?
Ask yourself how you can clarify and simplify the information you’re presenting, perhaps into a series of numbered steps or phases. Initiating organizational changes in any big company sound like a huge undertaking because they are, and your stakeholders probably already know that. (It’s probably why an idea similar to yours has been stowed in the file cabinet for a long time) So simplify the information that you are presenting into bite-sized pieces that they swallow. Organize the entire process into smaller, less intimidating steps or phases.
The key is to make the audience feel comfortable about the steps that you want them to take. At their core, persuasive presentations have very simple, straightforward structures. They enable the audience to grasp a complex idea or a solution more readily and inspire more confidence in the path that you are proposing. The less complicated your structure is, the more they can focus on the good stuff.
5. Have you included a story?
Include stories, if not real life examples that your audience can relate to. Sure, scientific data increased credibility, but nothing seeps into your stakeholders’ minds more than stories that touch their human side. You don’t have to concoct a tear-jerking anecdote, examples can suffice. A piece of data can become more powerful if you pair it with a concrete example to help others visualize what you are talking about.
6. Have you included a call to action?
Clarify exactly what action they need to take to show their support. Thanks to your incredibly persuasive presentation, the stakeholders should be on your side at the end of it all. Do they need to invest in your project? Do they need to approve the budget for a full scale launch? If you want anything to happen, implying what they need to do won’t suffice — you need to spell it out for them.
TLDR? Download this infographic that we made on Dorie Clark‘s “A Checklist for More Persuasive Presentations.”