I’ve posted many times about the psychology of changing people’s minds through a presentation. Since I believe the only reason to give a speech is to change the world, and the only way to do that is through the people in front of you, then you have to be able to change the minds of these good audience members.

I get many objections about this approach from clients and audience members at my own speeches. They say, “but I’m not trying to change their minds, I’m only trying to inform them of something.”

That’s a very bad reason to give a presentation, because the research shows that we only remember 10 – 30 percent of what we hear. So your work is doomed to failure, and moreover your efforts are designed to make the audience feel bad.

Just about everyone who has done research into the field of what students retain from lectures – arguably the most common use of the “I’m only trying to inform them” model – comes away depressed with how little students learn and what a bad educational device a lecture is.

Other clients say something a bit more nuanced. “What do I do with audiences that already are persuaded that, for example, climate change is a bad thing?” Won’t I bore that audience by telling it something it already believes?”

I had an instance of this argument recently from a participant at a conference I spoke at recently. The person came up to me on a break and said, “I speak on innovation, to audience that are already deeply convinced that they need to be better innovators. They give me pushback – they want me to get to the innovation secrets faster, not waste time on the problem, which they already know and subscribe to.”

That’s a tougher one to refute, because if we’re in the business of changing the world, why not get on with it?

The answer is that the audience may be intellectually committed to the idea, but real change is an emotional step that begins in the unconscious mind because something shocks us out of our status quo comfort into changing. To do that, you have to tough the audience emotionally, and that takes time. And one or two compelling stories.

You can’t just run down a verbal checklist, appealing to the Type-A brains in the room with your time-saving cleverness. Nothing emotional will happen, and no minds will be changed in a way that will lead to action.

So don’t be afraid to make the audience squirm for a while. They may say it’s impatience, but it’s actually a sign that their unconscious minds are agitating for change. You’ve got ‘em where you want them. Hang in there. Show no mercy. They are almost ready to change.

Finally, perhaps the cleverest objectors argue that “if I make the audience angry at me, they’ll dig in their heels and be less likely, not more likely, to change.”

Some recent research sheds a little light on this particular moment in a presentation – the moment just before your audience is furious at you for making them squirm and walks out.

(Actually, having sat through Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” I don’t believe that’s the way people respond to problems. They respond by wanting to fix the problems, even if – especially if – the speaker goes on for quite a while.)

But if you are afraid – unlike Al Gore – of losing your audience, then a recent study shows that you’ll make an audience more likely to change their ways by reminding them of their overall values – their essential goodness – just at the moment of peak readiness and discomfort.

So pile on the problem, and then say, “an audience as resourceful and intelligent as you, committed to truth, justice, and the righteous path of peace as you are, will have no difficult in committing to (my outrageous demands).

This approach works, apparently, even if the values aren’t precisely related to the problem. If you want to persuade the audience it needs to lose weight, pile on the stats, and then tell it that it believes in apple pie, and it will still be more likely to start a weight-loss program.

Aren’t humans wonderful?







  1. Lovely – absolutely: emotional change leads to idea change. That’s why satire’s worked for centuries – if they can laugh about it, they can think about it.

  2. Nick, you are just so darn on target. Love your posts. Here is my story related to this subject. I speak to dental professionals about the importance of performing oral cancer screenings on patients and the value in educating them about what they look for. I tell my story surviving stage IV oral cancer and my classic late diagnosis. As you say, my audience is committed intellectually. Some do a cursory screening. There is no official guideline to the exam, which by the way should be done at every dental check-up.

    After a lecture, a dentist came up to me and told me I made him furious and he almost walked out. “How dare you insult our profession,” he exclaimed. He continued to tell me he was glad he didn’t leave because I brought his emotions full circle.

    I do just as you say: I make my audiences squirm and hit them with several emotionally charged personal stories, So, I don’t TELL them what to do or how to feel. I simply tell my story in an intimate and dramatic way, and they feel deep in their gut that they can be doing more for their patients. The motivation to change comes from within them and that is the beauty of my presentation.

    1. Eva, thanks so much for the kind words and the great story. And keep up the good work. Dentists need to hear your message!

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