PRESENTATION

Giving a Talk? Here's the One Thing Your Audience Wants Most

Get this right in your speech and you'll truly engage your listeners. Plus, you'll look wicked smart.
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Guess what the members of your audience are most interested in? That's right, their problems and how to fix them. 

This is old news to anyone who has studied the arts of rhetoric, persuasion, and, of course, advertising. If you can define the problem faced by your audience, you build your credibility and engender in your listeners a need--an itch--to solve the problem. 

So how and when can a public speaker talk about the problems of the audience? The answer is: right off the bat. 

Get Right to It

A few years ago at Cisco, the sales organization got together for a major overhaul. Individual sales guys were hoarding client information, which benefited them but undermined the progress of the enterprise and the quality of the company's service.

Among the speakers was a young woman, blond and petite. She stood in front of the large auditorium filled 99 percent with men and said simply, "Cisco, we have a problem."

You could have heard a silicon wafer drop.

She went on to describe the problem, its causes, and its consequences, and only after she had finished her problem definition did she introduce the solution: the data warehouse.

She was insightful, crisp, and dramatic.

Define the Problem

Now, when defining a problem from a stage in front of a large organization, it is wise to avoid judgment and condemnation. In her case, she didn't want to burn bridges with the sales guys. But by outlining what incentivized them to behave as they had, they were off the hook, and while skeptical, they became curious about this thing called the data warehouse.

Some presenters can devote 30 percent of their time to problem definition. The Declaration of Independence lists 26 injuries the British monarchy inflicted on the American colonists. The injuries, listed together, read like a ticking bomb and comprise nearly half the text. They create the rationale for change and the emotion needed to make that change.

There is a point at which the presentation skill of problem definition becomes tedious. But it doesn't come as soon as you think. If you truly understand the issue and tell stories that illustrate the problem, then you have got the audience hooked emotionally and intellectually: It is going to feel anxious listening to the problems and think skeptically about your proposed solution.

You may get pushback, because every idea gets scrutinized by critics and skeptics, but that's good--audience members are pressure-testing your reasoning. And it's better to get them involved in a discussion than to have them ignore you.

The presentation skill of problem definition helps your audience move forward in the right direction, creates dialogue, and gives birth to creativity and innovation. Plus, it makes you look like one smart cookie. 

Good presenters solve problems.

Last updated: Feb 5, 2014

SIMS WYETH

Sims Wyeth is the president of Sims Wyeth & Co., an executive development firm devoted to the art and science of speaking persuasively. He is also the author of The Essentials of Persuasive Public Speaking, published by W. W. Norton.




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