How Applying the Overton Window Will Make You a Better Thought Leader

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Some advice that every presenter, let alone aspiring thought leader should consider before crafting their next talk...

Your audience has got a LOOONG list of things that they'd rather be doing than listening to you.


There, I said it.


Empowering? Perhaps not. But if you go into the presentation preparation phase with this in mind, not only will your talk will be better for it, your audience will thank you for it.

Why? Because most talks are, for want of a better expression, meh.


In political science, there is a concept called the Overton Window. It says that there is a range of ideas that the public is willing to accept. Everything inside the window is considered normal and expected. Everything outside of the window ranges from 'radical' to 'unthinkable.'

Alex Merry, public speaking coach, presentation skills, thought leadership, communication training, leadership development, TED talks, keynote speech

Image Credit: My image, inspired by Vice's interpretation*

Most presenters deliver content that is expected, and the result is a talk that is nothing short of dull...

Unlike most industry conferences, the primary reason someone would attend a thought-leadership conference is for the talks (as opposed to the networking). They have turned up to expose their minds to a whole new world of possibility, to have their ideas and perceptions challenged and to go home at the end of the day cleverer than they were when they arrived. And to do that, you might need to persuade them of something that they don't yet believe.

To do that, you're going to need to take them from the safety of the expected to the unthinkable.

Let me give you an example...

Before Emma Watson's address at the UN in 2014, the idea that 'feminism is for men' would probably have landed somewhere between unthinkable and ridiculous on the Overton scale. When she walked off that stage, the HeforShe campaign went on to spark arguably the biggest feminist movement since the suffragettes. Today, the idea that men need to play their part in achieving gender equality isn't just considered normal; it's expected. The Overton Window has shifted!

The point is, you have to expose your audience to the 'unthinkable' to create change. When you do this, ideas that were once seen as radical can begin to take hold.

Alex Merry, public speaking coach, presentation skills, thought leadership, communication training, leadership development, TED talks, keynote speech

The purpose-driven Founders reading this are probably thinking 'shifting the Overton Window is my day job!' And that is why entrepreneurs make for fantastic thought leaders.

This is all very interesting Alex, but what does this mean for me?

If your presentations leave your audience feeling the same way as they did before you started, you have failed. You'd have been better off sending them an email and saving everyone (especially yourself) a load of time.

To prevent this, I highly recommend sifting through your content and making sure that you're taking your audience on a journey from inside the window at the beginning of your presentation, to outside it at the end. If there is nothing in your talk that the audience would consider to be radical/unthinkable/at the very least unexpected then you have some work to do.

Caveat: This is not about hyperbole. Exaggeration for the sake of attention is one of the fastest ways to lose your credibility on stage. This is about really understanding your audience and designing a journey that will ultimately change how they think/feel.

Now comes the uncomfortable part.

Without risk, there is no reward. Shifting the Overton Window doesn't come without its challenges...

Delivering a talk that pushes the audience out of their comfort zone is going to require courage. Unthinkable ideas are often met with resistance, but for those who are brave enough to take the leap, you, my friends will have the greatest chance of seeing the change you're trying to create. Because you'll be remembered.

And for those of you who are worried that your ideas might get you cancelled, fear not! Here are three things you can do to ensure your talk is taken the way it is intended to be:

  • Seek out those who actively disagree with your idea before stepping on stage and ask them for feedback (and then practice listening to understand rather than listening to reply),
  • Help the audience expose the gaps in their knowledge (see a previous F2TL article on how to structure a talk for persuasion),
  • Be sure to acknowledge the counterargument. The world is more 50 shades of grey than black and white.

That's not to say that your talk needs to be divisive. The most important thing to take from this article is that every time you take the stage, you are in the driving seat and you have a responsibility to take your audience to pastures new. Used correctly, the Overton Window will make you a more emotionally intelligent communicator and hopefully a more impactful one too.

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