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Only God Can Demand Blind Faith; Presenting Ideas to Sceptical People
By Shelle Rose Charvet   Printer Friendly Version

You have put considerable time into preparing your presentation. You want to make sure that your audience both understands your main points and comes to the right conclusions. How do you get them up to speed quickly, especially when you can predict that there will be some conscientious objectors in the group?

Having worked in Europe for many years as a trainer, I had a chance to see different cultures and their presenting styles, as well as gaining an understanding of Canadian and American styles by comparison. North Americans often start with an anecdote and then launch into their content, as if the story will have introduced and "sold" the major concepts to an audience without further explanation. Try this in France and you will get thrown out on your ear.

The French prefer a more structured approach. Presenters outline their topic, what it will include and exclude; taking care to define all the major terms to be used. Sometimes they go on far too long for my taste. But defining one's terms doesn't mean that the audience has "bought" the underlying messages.

For a while I tried both the North American and French approaches together. Structure the talk, define my terms, and tell a story to illustrate my point. I still detected resistance to some of my weirder concepts. Have you ever had someone in your group who keeps questioning what you are saying? Or objecting to each new point you are making? Or just when you thought everyone got it, someone says something that makes you realize they are not at all comfortable with where you are going.

The Missing Link

From my 15 years of studying Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP)1, I have learned there are processes that are happening for my audiences, outside of their conscious awareness. There is a lot going on, that a presenter needs to predict and build responses for, right in the very beginning of a presentation.

One of the wackier concepts I talk about is in fact, the existence of the unconscious mind. Imagine a group of dark-suited business people nodding enthusiastically when I announce that 90 to 95% of what they do is controlled by parts of themselves they know little or nothing about. Yeah, right. Think about your own response. What are your objections to that statement?

Remember the last time you lost your keys? And you had to look all over the place? And when you found them, you couldn't remember putting them there? Somebody put them there and if it wasn't you, who was it? Have you ever been driving your car to a place you know so well, that it almost seems like someone else took over your body and drove you there? Someone else?

Some people may find it hard to believe, when they first think about it, that we have so highly trained ourselves to do most of the things we do, we hardly have to think about them consciously anymore. You just take them for granted. Others may be thinking that if our unconscious minds are doing all that, why can't our conscious minds just take a holiday instead? And why is it, that if your spouse or mother suggests you do something, a part of you objects immediately without even considering the suggestion?

Many of the ideas that any presenter is "selling" are just as weird to their audiences. Just try challenging commonly held beliefs about successful strategies in your organization.

How to Sell Weird Ideas

After having written your outline for a presentation, you might wish to consider using the following process to make sure that you are not asking your audiences to take a leap of faith.

1. Identify the underlying message you wish to get across, i.e. "Setting specific goals will transform how this team functions."

2. Think about your audience. What are the most extreme objections that anyone could have about your underlying message? List several. Ask your cynical friends and family for help with this if you are stuck in a positive frame of mind. For example, "Goal setting will not help us when most of the things are decided somewhere else."

3. Search for, or make up four common experiences that most people in your audience will have already had that provide evidence that your underlying message is true. (For specific groups, your can tailor your examples to their situation.) The key here is to choose experiences that each member of your audience can internally verify. For example, "a time when there were many choices available and you ended up doing what other people wanted and not being happy about it because you just got kind of pushed in that direction." (You can tailor this to specific situations; career decisions, etc.) Another example, "Think about a time when you were so determined to accomplish something you wanted, that no matter what obstacles were put in your way, you still made it happen."

4. Design your opening:

  • First, do what you normally would do to create credibility and rapport with your group and briefly introduce your topic.
  • Next, address the conscientious objectors in your group by telling them the objections that you came up with. For example: "Some people may be thinking that setting goals won't help them because most of the things are decided somewhere else."
  • · Ask your audience about the common experiences, to get your audience to relive each one, going inside and checking for themselves the truth of your underlying message. Have them raise their hands or otherwise physically indicate to you that they have had each of these experiences. For example: "Have you ever had a time when you weren't sure of what you wanted and then ended up doing what someone else wanted? Raise your hand (demonstrate) if this has happened to you. Raise your hand if you've ever had an experience of being so determined to do something, that no matter what obstacles were put in your way, you still managed to make it happen." (Always end on positive experiences.)
  • Link to your subject matter to start your presentation. For example: "Many of you have had that experience. It's all about figuring out what is important to you and how you can make it happen. Well that's what we will be doing today….."

Every time you give your presentation you will get feedback on how well you "sold" your underlying message. Watch your audience with your peripheral vision to detect anyone who is not buying it. Find out their objections, respond and make a note to include the objection the next time you give similar presentation.

You know how hard you have worked to become an expert in your subject matter. Using this process may enable your audience to quickly come up to speed on the important ideas you really want them to get. Only God can demand blind faith, everyone else has to prove their case.

1 The study of the structure of subjective experience. See Introducing NLP., by Joseph O'Connor and John Seymour.


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