microphonePicture one of those annual company meetings, where every manager, director and senior leader meets in one place for 2 1/2 days and, if successful, get a lot of planning and forecasting work done in between the socializing, sightseeing and, well, bar hopping.  During the first meeting on the second day, a VP speaks to the full group about an important initiative. The presentation is going very well. Audience members are indicating their willingness to get on board with the idea and are sending signals to the speaker that it’s time to move to Q&A and action planning.

But the speaker is not in tune with the audience. Nor has he rehearsed the presentation in front of anyone before this moment so he makes one of the biggest mistakes speakers make when trying to persuade others to get on board: he sells beyond the sell.  In other words, he keeps talking, and convincing, and entreating. He doesn’t really have a conclusion. He assumes it will just happen organically. He’ll figure it out in real time. My reaction to this part of the story: there’s a reason why every presidential debate involves a countdown clock.

As the speaker continues to reiterate the key points, the audience grows frustrated. Two of his colleagues try to get his attention, but he doesn’t notice. Ten minutes later, the audience has checked out.  Phones come out (not even under the table, mind you, but right out in the open).  At some point he sputters to a stop, and asks, “Any questions?”  And no hands go up.  He waits. After prompting them again, the first person to ask a question – a person who has now soured to the speaker and the topic – asks a negative question.

If only the speaker had done two things:  prepared a powerful conclusion, and  “listened” to his audience.  Here are some quick tips to help you master these two techniques.

1.  Prepare a powerful conclusion.  In a nutshell, you have practiced summarizing your key points in a way that further ingrains the content in your listener’s brain.  Word choice, brevity and a dynamic delivery are essential. Once you’ve done that, the only other element needed is a kickass Call to Action.  The best ones are immediately actionable.  For example, instead of saying, “Go out and end world hunger,”  a speaker might say, “I ask you to bring three cans of soup to your local food shelter.”  Vivid, clear, doable.

2.  Listen to your audience.  I mean the broader context of the word “listen” – the attentive, engaged presenter vs. the fact-teller; the just-get-through-it presenter.  This particular speaker missed four raised hands.  Granted, two of them were from his colleagues trying to rescue him, but the other two were from audience members excited to get going. Another important aspect of listening could occur before your presentation.  In this case, the speaker could have road-tested his presentation and learned just how agreeable his audience would be to the proposal.

Allow me to get a little “wonkish” for a moment.  Had this speaker beta-tested his proposal, he would have discovered that his content fell in the “latitude of acceptance.”  The other two possibilities for any influencer are “latitude of rejection” or “latitude of noncommitment.”  These terms are from Social Judgment Theory. Researchers Musafer Sherig and Carl Hovland of Yale University found that an individual weighs every new idea by comparing it with their present point of view to determine where it should be placed on the attitude spectrum.  For more on this research, click here.

If you are truly in tune with your audience, you may pick up signals that alert you to the fact that your proposal has fallen within the acceptance range.  You won’t always be able to pick up on this in real time, but it’s worth refining your connection and engagement skill set to at least try. Otherwise, you sell beyond the sell and lose your audience altogether.

Now go out and win over your next audience.

– Barbara