The One Skill You Need to Master
to Become a More Persuasive Presenter

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What's the most effective way to
change someone's mind?

The last time I asked this question was at the beginning of a lunch and learn I delivered to 150 Amazon employees towards the end of last year. The answers I got back? Many of the ones some of you have probably thought of yourselves...

Passion... data... reason... stories!

Now don't get me wrong, these are all useful tools, but only if:

  • You know exactly who you're presenting to. In other words, you understand why they are there and how you/your subject matter fits into their world.
  • They want to listen to what you've got to say.

But what if you don't? And what if they don't?

I had the pleasure of doing a bit of work a young filmmaker a few months back. His name is Ali Tabrizi and he is the mastermind director behind the Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy. I think it's fair to say it sent shockwaves around the world when it was released (unsurprisingly, he has become hot property on thought leadership stages since).

But here's the interesting thing...

If you haven't seen that documentary already, upon reading the title you have probably made your mind up about whether or not you're going to watch it. And that right there tells you everything you need to know about the psychology of an audience...

We might like to think of ourselves as open-minded creatures, but subconsciously we pre-judge everything. 10's if not 100's of micro decisions are being made about how willing we are going to be to listen to what it is you've got to say before you've uttered your first word. This means that how you start your presentations is important, especially if you're delivering a presentation with the goal of persuading an audience of something.

Which brings me nicely back to my first question - what is the most effective way to change someone's mind?

Answer: By planting a seed of doubt.

Something I have spent the first 300 words of this article trying to do to you. (Sorry).

Here's why...

In the early naughties, a cognitive psychologist called Leon Rosenblit came up with a theory known as the Illusion of Explanatory Depth. Long story short, it's a cognitive bias that leads people to believe that they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence and depth than they really do.*

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

Pic credit: Sejal Jamnadas**

So instead of overloading our arguments with logic and reason and going into these situations with a mindset for battle, I would argue that changing opinion starts by helping our audiences to expose gaps in their own knowledge.

This isn't about gaslighting. This is about creating an environment of curiosity instead of confrontation so that your audience is open to listening to the insights you have to share.

How? By asking the right question.

In the world of thought leadership presentations, questions are either:

  • Underutilised - and by that I mean not utilised at all, or
  • Badly utilised - cue life coach walking on stage, putting their hand up and asking a patronising question that's designed to get as many people in the audience as possible to also raise their hand e.g. 'who here has ever felt overwhelmed' 🙄.

If you're stepping onto a stage this year, don't be that person! Instead, try one of these 2 types of questions that are designed to expose knowledge gaps.

1. Curiosity Questions

'Why is Apple so innovative?' Simon Sinek, TED
'What is so special about the human brain?' Suzana Herculano Houzel, TED
'What is the most effective way to change someone's mind?' Me, The title of this article

Note: Best delivered rhetorically, at the beginning of a presentation. If your immediate response to reading these questions is 'I don't know' or you're unable to confidently pinpoint 1 answer, then they've done the job nicely. 

Result: Knowledge gap exposed, curiosity ⬆

2. 'Did you know' Questions

Speaker: Did you know that there is enough money hidden in offshore tax havens to finance the whole of the $16.5T Paris Climate Change Agreement?

Listener: 🤯  

Note: Best delivered rhetorically, at the beginning of a presentation.  If it wasn't clear already, the listener's silent answer to the question is... 'no!'

Result: Knowledge gap exposed, curiosity ⬆

Check out the video below of the 2015 Toastmasters champion, Muhammed Qahtani** delivering the talk of his life to see this in action. You only need to watch the first 75 seconds to experience the impact of the 'did you know' questions he used in his opener to hook us in and create the curiosity and openness he needed from his audience to set up the rest of his talk.

The ability to persuade isn't just a critical component of effective leadership, it's a critical skill in everyday life. Learning how to ask better questions will not only help you to deliver mind-blowing presentations on thought leadership stages. You can use them in sales conversations to discover opportunity gaps, or as a pattern breaker when everyone's talking over each other in a team meeting.

So next time you have a presentation to deliver, ask yourself:

What are the most challenging questions surrounding my subject matter?

It might lead to the question that unlocks an attitude of openness and exploration in your audience and completely change the dynamic of your presentation.




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