A Surprising Tip for the Toughest Presentations

Think about your most difficult presentation, your toughest audience, or the time where you had little to no shot at changing the minds of the decision-making team. Despite the odds, you showed up anyway. Got it? You remember the day? I promise you it doesn’t come close to the audience Erin Gruwell faced in the early fall of 1994.

In your scenario, the decision-making team probably didn’t vehemently hate you or want you dead. That’s literally the receptivity of the audience Erin faced in her first teaching job at Woodrow Wilson High School, a tough Los Angeles, area school district. Her assignment: teach English to the worst performing students of the sophomore class.

How would you reach these kids? How would you get them interested in literature or English composition? What would be the first few slides of your PowerPoint presentation?

They didn’t care about an education. They cared about staying alive. As one of her students put it, “I never thought I would graduate. If I got to do a book report and I have to worry about being shot. Like the book report is going to be at the bottom of my priority list.”

She intuitively knew if she was going to reach them, she had to learn more about her students. But how? Relationally, there was a huge chasm. She was a self-described perky, upper-middle class woman who wore polka dots. They were tough street kids who watched their friends die weekly.

While our role in sales is clearly different from Erin’s, there is one common challenge: How do you change strongly held beliefs? Not take orders or manage relationships, but change beliefs. Erin had to change her students’ beliefs about the best path to reach their desired destination, a path they viewed with the utmost skepticism. Sound familiar?

She pulled it off. She was so successful her story became a movie, The Freedom Writers, with starring Hillary Swank playing ErinShe revolutionized the way they viewed an education, and 100 percent of her 150 students graduated high school.

I think she has something to teach us as well.

The first of Erin’s many brilliant ideas was to push her agenda aside. Instead of diving into diagraming sentences or the merits of iambic pentameter, she made one simple, Other-Centered® request: journal your thoughts for two weeks. Since the journals were turned in anonymously, she got the real story for the first time. Her students became people. She got a glimpse into the way they saw the world, what their life was really like, and the incredible challenges they faced every day. She discovered their point of view.

You may not have the opportunity to meet everyone you are presenting to, or spend hours in Discovery learning about the plans, pains, and key decision drivers. Regardless of what is known about your audience, we can control where we begin. We can lead with our story or do our best to lead with their story. I believe Erin, like all the other teachers before her, would have failed to influence her students if she hadn’t begun with their story. So simple, but in my experience, so overlooked.

Her students, like your customers, have an existing frame for how they see the world. Everything they’ve experienced in life determines how they see the topic at hand. And if you desire to reframe a strongly held belief system, you must start with their existing frame.

So, do everything you can to get your hands on their “journal.” Become a student of your customers. Like the marketing guru who understands the psychology of their unique customer segments, you can do the same for the typical players in the decision-making process. Company types, role types, industries, they all share commonalities, and the more you read, observe and listen, the more accurately you can predict their point of view.

Whether the information is gained in prior meetings with the decision makers, interviewing similar, existing customers, or from those who know your audience members; make it your goal to begin your presentation by blowing their minds with how well you know them. If you can get a few heads nodding, some knowing smirks (How did she know that?), and some “Amen sister, preach it!” the likelihood of your influence grows exponentially.

If you miss the mark, here’s what I’ve learned from 25 years of making presentations: If you make a sincere effort to start with and describe their point of view and miss a few details, your stock with the audience improves. They would rather help you struggle to understand them then be bored by you.

Making your audience members the lead story is always better than the, “I don’t know anything about you, pull string, and deliver generic pitch” presentation.

The gravitational pull to your world, your agenda, and your passion for “English” is a barrier to your success. The audience most likely has a completely different viewpoint from yours. They go to their company meetings, and you go to yours. Don’t ask them to learn your point of view; show that you made the effort to learn theirs. If you do, the next time you take the stage, your message will be received loud and clear.

What Next?

If you found this blog helpful and want to learn more about ASLAN’s philosophy, you can check out our new book, UnReceptive, at unreceptivebook.com.

As Co-founder and CEO, Tom’s primary role is to create content that helps people live, sell, and serve more effectively. Find him on LinkedIn

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The best way to get to know us is to know what we value. If we teach it we live it, because what we do speaks far more eloquently than what we say. We’ll always choose people over profits, and we’re most fulfilled and effective when we serve. It drives our culture, frames our training programs and transforms the lives of the clients we partner with.