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Persuasion: Getting from Point A to Point B

As social animals, we humans find ourselves called upon to persuade other humans almost every day. Persuasion is one of the crucial skills of life. The persuasive situations you may face will be remarkably varied, each posing its own unique challenges and opportunities.

Yet all presentation situations have one element in common. Whether it’s a formal presentation, speech, sales pitch, seminar, jury summation, or pep talk, every communication has as its goal to take the audience from where they are at the start of your presentation, which is Point A, and move them to your objective, which is Point B. This dynamic shift is persuasion.

Recognizing this truth is the best starting point for learning the art of persuasion. It’s fine if your presentation is entertaining, eloquent, or impressive. But that’s not your main purpose in offering it. Your main and only purpose is to move people to Point B. That’s the point! When the point is not apparent, you have committed one of the Five Cardinal Sins; when the point, Point B, is readily apparent, you have made your clarion call to action.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s involved in the challenge of moving an audience from Point A to Point B. In psychological terms, Point A is the inert place where your audience starts: uninformed, knowing little about you and your business; dubious, skeptical about your business and ready to question your claims; or, in the worst-case scenario, resistant, mentally committed to a position contrary to what you’re asking them to do.

What you are asking them to do is Point B. The precise nature of Point B depends on the particular persuasive situation you face. To reach Point B, you need to move the uninformed audience to understand, the dubious audience to believe, and the resistant audience to act in a particular way. In fact, understand, believe, and act are not three separate goals, but three stages in reaching a single, cumulative, ultimate goal. After all, the audience will not act as you want them to act if they don’t first understand your story and believe the message it conveys.

When I coach the executives of a company in preparation for their IPO road show, the audience for whom they’re preparing will be composed of prospective investors. Point B is the moment at which those investors are willing to sell some of their holdings in Intel or Microsoft and invest those valuable assets in shares of the fledging company.

Dan Warmenhoven, the CEO of Network Appliance at the time the company went public, began his IPO road show with this opening statement: "What’s in a name? What’s an appliance? A toaster is an appliance. It does one thing and one thing well: It toasts bread. Managing data on networks is complicated. Until now, data has been managed by devices that do many things, not all of them well. Our company makes a product called a File Server. A File Server does one thing and does it well: It manages data on networks."

If Dan had stopped right there, his investor audience would have understood what his company did. But I coached Dan to go beyond that description to add: "When you think of the explosive growth of data in networks, you can see that our File Servers are positioned to be a vital part of that growth, and Network Appliance is positioned to grow as a company. We invite you to join us in that growth."

That last sentence is the call to action. Notice that Dan did not ask the investor audience to buy his stock. That would have been presumptuous and unnecessary; after all, their very job titles included the word "invest." But the additional sentences gave Dan the opportunity to lead his audience from Point A to Point B. A synonym for "lead" is "manage." The subliminal takeaway, then, is Effective Management.

Starting with the Objective in Sight

Point B, then, is the endgame of every presentation: its goal. The only sure way to create a successful presentation is to begin with the goal in mind.

This is an age-old concept. Aristotle called it teleology: the study of matters with their end or purpose in mind. Today’s business gurus market the same idea. In author Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he stresses the importance of starting with the objective in sight. Aristotle in everyday garb.

Few executives study Aristotle these days, but Covey has been read by millions, to say nothing of the countless others who’ve heard about his ideas from friends and colleagues. Nonetheless, this crucial concept of starting with the goal in mind hasn’t truly penetrated our thinking about presentations. Think of the many times when, after sitting through an entire presentation, you asked yourself, "What was the point?" One of the Five Cardinal Sins. The missing point is Point B: the call to action.

Unfortunately, and inexplicably, Point B is missing from all too many presentations.

If you’re a sales professional, how can your customer reach the point of making a purchase unless you ask for the sale? If you’re a corporate manager, how can the members of your team agree to support your new business initiative unless you tell them unmistakably what you need them to do, and explicitly ask for their help? If you’re an ambitious young worker, how can your manager give you the raise or promotion you desire unless you ask for it?

Obvious? Maybe. But it’s surprisingly common for businesspeople to forget to focus on Point B when they communicate. If you start your persuasive process with a clear focus on Point B, you’ll have a far better chance of ending there, accompanied by your audience. Ask for the order! Call your audience to action! Get to the point! Get to Point B!

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