Supercompetent Speaking: The Gentle Art of Persuasion

If attendees are to be motivated to change, you must persuade them to understand, accept, and internalize your point of view.

By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP

With some exceptions, the point of a presentation is usually either to teach the audience something new or to sell them on something—a product, a service, or a way of thinking—and get them to take action. If they are to be motivated to change, you must persuade attendees to understand, accept, and internalize your point of view.

This persuasion can be difficult, because human nature works against you: Most people retain less than 50 percent of a presentation just 10 minutes after it’s over, and they lose all but 10 percent inside of a week. Those are sobering statistics for those of us dedicated to changing lives from the podium or platform. Luckily, there are simple ways to boost those numbers.

We all know we need to look presentable, engage our audience members with eye contact; watch our body language; speak with enthusiasm and confidence; and provide simple, readable visuals. In fact, I’ve written previous columns on all those topics. But persuasion is the most important factor in grabbing attendees’ attention and getting them to do something. How can you do it?

  1. Be focused on your audience, not yourself. “Know your audience” may very well be the #1 Speaker’s Commandment. Beyond doing your homework and knowing exactly what your audience expects, you must start from (and stay within) a place of empathy with them. Understanding “a day in the life” of an audience member and how your topic will help them is critical. Realize that asking them to adopt your points may require them to give up previous beliefs or habits—always a difficult proposition—even for the open-minded. Walk in their shoes; understand their greatest concerns, and offer viable solutions with tangible benefits.
  2. Tell a story. We humans spent thousands of years sitting around campfires teaching, exchanging information, and providing entertainment by telling each other stories. We’re hardwired to pay attention to story-telling techniques. At first glance, they may not seem to have a place in a business presentation, but think about it: Aren’t all the best presentations exciting, interesting, and informative—just like a good story? You don’t have to over-dramatize if that’s not comfortable for you, but use anecdotes, unusual news items, analogies, and personal examples to jazz up your presentation and bring dry data to life.
  3. Practice, practice, practice. The best way to seem spontaneous is to practice repeatedly. Rehearse until your speech sounds almost improvisational, and the pieces fit together flawlessly. Experiment with flow, tone, inflection, and pacing, and avoid filler words such as “um.” Record a practice session so you can review and repair your performance, and if possible, present your talk to an objective test audience, so they can give you pointers on how to improve.
  4. Be concise and memorable. Few people will be upset if you finish your presentation a few minutes early, especially if you’re the last thing between them and lunch or happy hour. Keep it brief, focusing on no more than three to seven points (depending on the length and type of your presentation) so you can easily cover andre-emphasize each of those points to aid audience retention. If you combine that approach with easy-to-follow graphics, you can boost the one-week retention rate from 10 percent to as high as 65 percent.
  5. Aim for the heart, not just the head. While you do need to provide facts, you also need to touch the audience’s emotions. Help them connect with why it’s important to listen you. You hook listeners when they decide it’s in their best interest to absorb and accept your message, so speak with conviction and authority. By finding common ground and focusing on them, you take the focus off yourself, so you’ll be less nervous. Let them know you as a real person. In persuasive public speaking, buy-in is your ultimate objective, so work toward removing as many barriers between you and the audience as possible. Try to come across as a mentor, rather than as a pitchman or drill instructor.

Grab hold of the audience both logically and emotionally, and end your presentation with an upbeat message that includes a call to action—whether it’s to buy your product or adopt a certain system or change a particular behavior. Even if they only remember 10 percent of what you teach them, make sure it’s the 10 percent that matters most. So know what that is and drive it home!

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, is an expert in productivity. For more than 20 years, her speeches have helped entrepreneurs, leaders, teams, and organizations improve output, lower stress, and save time at work and in life. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides time management workshops around the globe that help attendeesachieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time. Stack is the author of five bestselling productivity books, with more than 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, most recently “What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do.” Her newest work, “Execution IS the Strategy,” hits bookstores in spring 2014. Connect with her at;; or


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