People don’t like to change their minds.  They hang on to the status quo like passengers on the Titanic hung on to the few life preservers available.

That presents speakers who are in the world- and mind-changing business with a challenge.  How do you get those audience members to let go of their life preservers and swim with you into the unknown waters of an ocean of new ideas?

Most speakers believe – at least the evidence of their speeches tells us this – that the excellence of their new ideas will draw people to them.  Changing minds is a matter of seduction, in this view.  Tease me with a sexy new idea and I’ll follow you anywhere.

And so these speakers sashay up to the podium, say hello, and begin straightaway with their idea.  Here are the ten ways to master employee engagement!  Here are the three things entrepreneurs need to do to succeed with VCs!  Here are the five secret jedi techniques for HR executives to get a seat at the executive team’s table!  And so on.

Two problems with that.  First, your new ideas are never as new as you think, and at some point, a good deal of your audience is going to think, I’ve heard that one, number three on the list, before.  So if your idea doesn’t have new going for it, it’s suddenly much less seductive.  I don’t want to go through all the pain and suffering involved in changing my thinking if I’m only going to get mostly same old, mostly same old.  So I listen, nod, and go to the coffee break having already forgotten most of what you said.

Remember, there are very few new ideas.  I’m not going to say there are none, but your ideas are never as new as you think.

Second, jumping right in to your new ideas right from the start, which is what 97 percent of speakers do, is like a doctor proscribing medicine for the patient, before he has had a chance to tell her his symptoms.

That would just be weird, right?  But speakers do it all the time.

So what’s the alternative?  How do you get people to listen to your new ideas, let go of their status quos, and actually come around to your way of thinking?

You have to make them uncomfortable with that status quo.  This is both hard for many speakers to do, and hard for them to understand.  They want the audience to love them.  In their enthusiasm, they are eager to get started with their ideas.  Why should I rehearse the problems with the current thinking?  The audience knows that already.  And I want a standing O!

But you have to put the focus on the audience.  You have to realize that your job is to first make that audience uncomfortable with their status quo, and then give them your new, cool alternative.  We’re not ready to take the medicine until the doctor has persuaded us that she understands the disease – and tells us what she knows about it.

You’re going to have to risk the love of the audience in order to make them realize that they have to change their old way of thinking.  You’re going to have to get them to let go of that life preserver.

That act of diagnosis, that definition of the problem, is what gets both audience and speaker on the same page.  If you fail to do that, your audience will be way behind you and will not be ready to follow you into the uncharted waters of your new ideas.

So first do the diagnosis, then prescribe the cure.  Tell the audience about all the issues with their current way of thinking.  Then, once they’re good and uncomfortable, zap them with your new thinking.  They’ll be grateful for the deliverance if you’ve made them uncomfortable enough.  And you might even get that standing O!  But what’s really important – you will get them to change their minds.  You will change the world.  And that’s the only reason to give a speech. Ever.






  1. Thanks! But I think that even more dramatic than pitfall-rescue is bait-pitfall-rescue… That way you get to “turn the scene” not once but twice! There’s a classic 30-second commercial archplot 1) bait 2) pitfall 3)rescue 4)how-to/so-what 5) call-to-action. Example:

    Bait Opening shot is a young woman in cap and gown at the podium about to give a valedictorian speech, cut to shot of proud father and mother in front row. In three seconds you offer family, young people, beauty, education, community, and achievement

    Pitfall Voice over “Three years ago this man survived a heart attack” [Oh! No! I might not survive to enjoy this wonderful moment.]

    Rescue “His doctor recommend a regimen of daily Bayer aspirin to lower the risk of a second attack” [Tell me more]

    How-to/so-what “Studies show.. blah blah only 81 mg/day blah blah enteric coating blah blah” [These guys know there stuff]

    Call-to-action “Talk to your doctor about Bayer aspirin” [Thanks I sure will]

    I think the bait draws people in and makes the pitfall even more dramatic. Thoughts?

    1. Hi. Colin — Sure, if it helps to think about it that way. I would described those as variants of “problem-solution,” but I’m not too worried about the terminology.

  2. Hi Nick,

    Another really great reminder about the vital importance of the start! Critical to get this right before people hit the phones to check on Facebook because you have lost their attention. Love the diagnosis explanation helps people understand the process well.

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