Is a presentation always an act of persuasion?

This interesting discussion recently surfaced on the blog of Dr. Andrew Abela, author of Advanced Presentations by Design. The question is: is a presentation always an act of persuasion? I wanted to offer an opinion.

The answer is “yes”, according to one of the greatest thinkers of all time: Aristotle. In his Rhetoric, he argues that a good communicator combines three things into a presentation: logic, emotion and authority. Logic does not stand on its own because, in his words:

“When people are feeling friendly and placable, they think one sort of thing; when they are feeling angry or hostile, they think…something totally different.” (Rhet. II.1, 1378a)

In the absolutely fabulous book Moving Mountains, author Henry Boettinger echoes a similar theme.

“Scissors cut cloth by combining two sharp tools. No one can say which blade does the cutting. The most you can say is BOTH do. Passion and reason likewise cut through the fabric woven of doubt, inertia and fear…neither can cut it alone.” 

This is easy to accept if you think about sales presentations, keynote addresses and motivational speeches. But what about a presentation explaining a new scientific discovery or an analysis of financial data? Even here, people learn better when you engage them both intellectually and emotionally, with storytelling, anecdotes, attractively formatted slides, even humor.

Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules, demonstrates with this video that even when he’s discussing statistical findings, the message is more impactful when he delivers it with humor.

What about in the classroom, where the goal is to inform and educate? I conduct corporate training workshops and I can tell you it is a general principle of training that you cannot just lecture to an audience. You need to engage them through humor, movement and playfulness. Spending time upfront on icebreakers warms people and opens them to learning. Humor causes ideas to stick. What is the definition of a “boring” class? It is one where the instructor just talks or provides uninteresting activities. Emotions are critical to learning.

Perhaps the hang-up is around the word “persuasion”. It immediately conjures images of a shady salesman trying to manipulate you into believing his lies. It’s probably impossible to talk you out of that impression.

Perhaps a better way of thinking about it is this: if you want people to be open to your ideas, you are best-served by putting them into the right frame of mind. Logic does not do that by itself; you need emotion.

For another opinion, see this blog post by Chris Witt, author of Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint and Marjorie Brodie at Six Minutes.

So, yes, every presentation has a component of persuasion to it if you care about the audience understanding and adopting your ideas. Even if the primary goal is to educate and inform, a focus on pure information transfer misses the important role of emotion in learning. That doesn’t mean you have to be a sales person or a comedian, but it does mean the facts can always be amplified with emotion. And that applies to every presentation.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.

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