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Why it's so hard to identify your audience's likely objections

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If your presentation involves persuading an audience (or someone in it) to do something, one of the most things you need to do is identify their likely/possible objections in advance. I've written about this elsewhere (see How to handle objections during your presentation), but what few people realise or understand is just how hard this is.

Presumably, you think your proposed course of action has a myriad of benefits and is the the best thing since sliced bread (or you wouldn't be proposing it). Unfortunately, it's often the fact that you know these benefits inside out that makes it so difficult for you to even contemplate how the audience couldn't appreciate them. Your knowledge gives you a blind spot.

As soon as you start to identify the objections that could be raised, you'll start to dismiss them out of hand as being trivial or worthless. You'll say, "Yes, but that's covered by ..." or "But that's not important ..." or "But that's ignoring the fact that ..." You won't really put yourself in the audience's shoes, you'll pay pretend to. You'll pay lip service to it. You'll still view their possible objections from your perspective, not theirs.

Because it's almost impossible not to do this. I've written elsewhere about how we tend to look at evidence that supposrts our viewpoint but ignore evidence that doesn't; as the British politican Lord Molson once said, "I will look at any evidence to confirm the opinion to which I have already come"(if you haven't read it, see Confirmation Bias: why it's so difficult to change some people's minds).

But we also have a number of self-serving habits that lead us to believe our viewpoint or perspective is the rational, objective, unbiased one, and that of the other person is subjective and emotional. We assume that other reasonable people will see things the same way we do. So if we can just get them to listen, so we can explain to them or educate them on the facts, they'll come round to our point of view. And if they don't, then it's because they're biased, or thick, or short-sighted. We almost never accept that their perspective might be right and ours wrong.

Even when the two sides of an argument both know the other has a different perspective on the issue, each side think that theirs is objective and right, and the other's is biased and wrong. In one experiment social psychologist Paul Ross gave a group of Israelis the official Israeli peace proposals but told them they belonged to the Palestinians, and gave some Palestinians the proposals from the Palestinian negotiators, but said they came from the Israelis.

He says, "The Israelis liked the Palestinian proposals attributed to Israel more than they liked the Israeli proposal attributed to the Palestinians. If your own proposal isn't going to be attractive to you when it comes from the other side, what chance is there that the other side's propsal is going to be attractive when it actually comes from the other side?"

And the same thing happened when a similar exercise was done with Republicans and Democrats.

"And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not coinsider the plank in your own?" - Matthew 7:3

So like drivers, we all have blind spots. But unlike drivers, by definition we don't know where ours are. If we did, they wouldn't be blind spots. But just as good drivers look over their shoulders when reversing or changing lanes to avoid crashing into something, we have to do the same thing if we want to avoid the metaphorical 'car crash' of our proposal getting shot down in flames.

If you're close to your presentation's content, the odds are you'll be unable to do this and come up with any 'real' audience objections. Introspection will just reinforce your own confirmation bias and self-justifying beliefs and convince you how powerful and persuasive your argument is. My advice is to get someone completely uninvolved with the presentation to act as a devil's advocate.

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