For the presenter to succeed in achieving the clarion call to action, the audience must be brought into equal focus with the presenter’s objectives. To create that balance, I’ve coined the term Audience Advocacy. Mastering Audience Advocacy means learning to view yourself, your company, your story, and your presentation through the eyes of your audience.
In programs with my clients, I role-play potential investors, prospective customers, or would-be partners. In developing my own program material, I take the point of view of my clients. You must do the same in whatever presentation you are developing. Take your audience’s point of view. This is a shift in thinking that requires both knowledge and practice.
Let me refer again to Aristotle, that pioneer in the art of persuasion. In his master work, the Rhetoric, Aristotle identified the key elements of persuasion, the most important of which he called, in the Greek of his day, pathos. Pathos refers to the persuader’s ability to connect with the feelings, desires, wishes, fears, and passions of the audience. The English words we use today reveal connections with the ancient Greek root of pathos: Think of "empathy" and "sympathy," for example. Aristotle wrote: " . . . persuasion may come through the hearers when the speech stirs their emotions. Our judgments when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile."1
The question is: How can you communicate so that your audience will be pleased, friendly, and ready to act on your Point B? My experience, and that of hundreds of my clients, suggests that the best method is Audience Advocacy. Everything you say and do in your presentation must serve the needs of your audience.
It’s a simple concept, yet profoundly important. If Audience Advocacy guides your every decision in preparing your presentation, you’ll be effective and persuasive.
Shift the Focus from Features to Benefits
One way to understand the concept of Audience Advocacy more fully is via one of the classic rules of advertising and sales . . . still emphasized in those professions today because it is so fundamental . . . the distinction between Features and Benefits. This distinction is vitally important whenever you’re called upon to sell your story. In fact, when you shift the focus of any presentation from Features to Benefits, you heighten the chances of winning converts to your cause.
A Feature is a fact or quality about you or your company, the products you sell, or the idea you’re advocating. By contrast, a Benefit is how that fact or quality will help your audience. When you seek to persuade, it’s never enough to present the Features of what you’re selling; every Feature must always be translated into a Benefit. Whereas a Feature may be irrelevant to the needs or interests of your audience, a Benefit, by definition, is always relevant. Without Benefits, you have no Audience Advocacy. For people to act on anything, they must have a reason to act, and it must be their reason, not yours.
The same principle applies to any persuasive challenge you face. Features are of interest only to the persuader; Benefits are of interest to the audience. Go with Benefits every time.
Understand the Needs of Your Audience
You can create an effective presentation only if you know your audience: what they’re interested in, what they care about, the problems they face, the biases they hold, the dreams they cherish. This means doing your homework. If you’re in sales, for example, it’s imperative that you take time to get to know your customers: how and why they could use your product, their financial constraints, their competitive issues, and how your product can help them achieve their personal or professional goals. And while you need to understand them as representatives of the marketplace or of a client company, you also need to understand them as human beings. What are their biggest headaches, fears, worries, aspirations, needs, loves, and hates? How can what you have to offer serve them?
At times, your interests and those of your audience are bound to diverge, which creates the potential for conflict and frustration. You may dearly desire that raise, that lucrative sales contract, or that crucial loan or investment needed to keep your business afloat. Inevitably, your audience members will have their own motivations and issues that differ from your own. The art of persuasion must be balanced by Audience Advocacy: convincing your audience that what you want will serve their interests, too.
Alex Naqvi is the former CEO of Luminous Networks, a private Silicon Valley company providing optical Ethernet solutions that enable the giant telecommunications carriers to deliver, on a single platform, a combination of Internet traffic, interactive and broadcast video, and voice services. Although a veteran in the industry, Alex usually finds the telecoms, as they are known in the trade, a crowd that is an especially tough sell. But, Alex has learned to recognize, understand, and respond to the interests and feelings of those audiences. Alex explains:
Our new technology makes it possible for telecoms to deliver better Internet service more economically than ever before. We thought that using Luminous Networks would be a no-brainer for any telecom manager.
Unfortunately, we weren’t considering the point of view of our audience. I’m thinking of one potential customer in particular: a big, important telecom with a long history in the industry. Many of the managers we were hoping to sell our services to had been with the firm for 20 years. They were conservative and maybe a little afraid of the new and the unknown . . . both of which Luminous represented.
In our early days, we didn’t understand how to reach out to an audience like that. We went in with a rather cocky attitude, talking about how our technology was "a radical paradigm shift for the new century." We described its advantages in a way that implied that anyone who didn’t get it was probably kind of dumb.
Looking back, it’s easy to see our mistake. We were alienating the very people we needed to win over. No wonder they didn’t want to buy from us.
In time, we learned to soften our presentations. We started describing our technology not as a radical shift, but as a natural evolution from the current technology. We learned to send the message: "You’re not dumb. The technology you now have in place was perfectly appropriate for its day. But now the world has changed, and Luminous is ready with the next-generation technology you and your customers need." As you can imagine, our sales results are a lot better with this approach!
It’s funny: As engineers, we tend to look at the challenge of selling our story as a lifeless, logical proposition. We forget the human factor. The message must be honed to address those human motivations. We forget that it’s living people we are selling to!