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Not what they say, but what we hear

Welcome to the hotly anticipated – and much reviled – triannual season of point-scoring, populism and brouhaha that is the lead-up to the election.

Yes, politico season is upon us, which means we can look forward to another month of clever politicking. But it’s also a great chance to talk about how biases can get in the way of great presentations – and how they might make your presentation even stronger when you face them head-on.

It’s all about persuasion

A good rule of thumb for a presentation is that you want to persuade your audience. You want to take them from their current state (Point A) to some future state (Point B). How well they get there comes down to your structure, your messaging, and your delivery.

But persuasion is difficult when your audience has some unchecked biases that affect what they hear and how they interpret your message.

You may have faced this yourself listening to politicians. You’ll be more likely to outright disagree with a political message if you hate the speaker – no matter the merits of the idea. Take the same message and put it into the mouth of a speaker you do like, and you might find yourself nodding along. 

What we can do as an audience

When it comes to the next business presentation you’re listening in on, your biases can be a bit more subtle. Simply telling you to check your biases at the door won’t really cut it.

In fact, there’s real value in our varieties of perspectives, and that’s important when it comes to engaging with presentations. As the likes of HBR and Forbes have been reporting for years, diverse teams are smarter, more creative, and make better decisions. We should challenge speakers, because that’s how ideas prove themselves.

But do we disagree with the speaker, or the statement? 

As an audience member, this is the difference between folding your arms (i.e. giving up on the speaker, writing them off, ignoring what they have to say, then criticising them in private later) and finding opportunities to ask questions and raise concerns over aspects they haven’t (yet) addressed or considered. Interrogate what they’re saying, not who is saying it. You may be surprised at what comes to light.

Biases for the better?

When it comes to delivering your next presentation, you’ll have people in the audience who may be on a different alignment to you politically, socially, economically, environmentally, and so on. (In some ways, I hope they are, too; there’s nothing gained by preaching to the converted!)

Creating a compelling presentation is built on facts and feelings – something I covered in my last EDM on storytelling. Facts and figures can be persuasive to parts of your audience, but stories are what connect with their hearts and emotional reactions. You need to use both to provide multiple touchpoints for your audience to bind with your presentation and the point you’re making. 

As you build your presentation content, consider how you can confront your audience’s biases head-on. If you anticipate they’re going to disagree with you on one point, then bring up their objections before they do. You’ve got the chance to show you’ve done your homework, and convince them that your Point B is worth pursuing. 

Contrary evidence can be one of the most valuable parts of persuading your audience, because it shows that you understand more than one perspective – that you’ve checked your own biases, and are ready to embrace opposition because it reinforces your point.

Whether you’re in the audience or up the front, show that your judgement is as informed and unbiased as it can be. You may not win everyone over, but it’ll put you in the running.

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