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The importance of having clear objectives

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You couldn't teach the ancient Greeks much about oratory, and one of their most important oratorical concepts was what Aristotle called teleology - 'the study of things with the end or purpose in mind' - i.e., planning every single aspect of your speech or presentation with your objective in mind.

Because once you've decided on an objective, remember that this is what you are trying to achieve. When you've finished, a hundred people can come up to you and tell you it was a great speech - funny, entertaining, incisive, brilliant, etc. But none of this is important if you failed to achieve your objective.

Many people begin their preparation by selecting a dozen or so slides from their personal 'archive' that they can bolt something around. They use the slides as 'inspiration' to give them some ideas about what they might say. This is letting the tail wag the dog. The selection and preparation of visual aids is the penultimate of my seven steps of preparation.

This is because (and you'll tire of hearing me say this) your slides are there to support you, not the other way around. First you need to decide what you want to say, and THEN choose the slides that help you do that

"Discover the message and the words will follow" - Cato

The first question you ask yourself when you are asked to speak is: What exactly am I trying to achieve? There is a whole range of possible answers to this question, the most common of which might be:

  • To inform
  • To update
  • To persuade
  • To motivate
  • To sell

(NB: I haven't put down 'inform' and 'update' because these are the most important, but because they're the most common). But such answers are simplistic and are only a starting point. If your objective is 'to motivate', for example, what do you want to motivate your audience to actually do?

Are you trying to motivate an entire salesforce to achieve next year's sales targets, or a small audience of three prospective buyers to purchase your company's products or services? Or do you want the diners at a black tie event to put their hands in their pockets and give generously to a charity?

A lot of people say their objective is 'to update' or 'to inform'. But if that's the case, what key messages are you planning to communicate? Then think for a moment ...... is that really the case? Do you really want the audience to simply think, 'That's interesting .....' and nothing else?

Because if you want them to go away and do something with that information, then your real objective is probably something else. Maybe you want them to pass the information on to their own teams, or look at how they can help you achieve something. If that's the case, then your real objective is more likely to be to motivate or persuade.

The problem with categorizing your presentations as an 'inform' or 'persuade' objective is that you're making the mistake of looking at it from your perspective, when you should be looking at it from the audience's.

There are 3 steps to this. The first is to write down, "At the end of my presentation, I want the audience to (blank) " and then fill in the blank. Now you might want them to do something or to think something, but either way you'll fill it with a verb such as know / understand / implement / approve / buy / do / agree / realize.

The second is to ask yourself, "Why?" and then a second time, or "So what?" Keep on asking yourself these questions until you've really got to the bottom of what you're trying to achieve.

Step 3 is about measurement. All good objectives are measurable, so how will you know if you've achieved your yours? Sometimes this is obvious; if your objective is to get them to buy 1,000 widgets, then the measurement is whether they give you an order for that amount.

But if your objective is to think/agree/realize something, how will you recognize when that's happened? For example, if you want them to realize the importance of X, how will you know if that's the case? If they do realize it, what would they do or say?

Would they make an overt statement of agreement? State a particular intent or course of action? Because unless you elicit that agreement or statement of intent, how can you know you've achieved your objective?

Example 1:

You're presenting 'the numbers' to a sales team, updating them on the month 1-11 performance. Traditionally, most people would think (rather simplistically) of this as an 'update/inform' objective, as in, "My objective is to update the sales force on the numbers/latest sales figures." But look what happens when you try this new approach.

1. State, "At the end of my presentation, I want the salesforce to understand the month 1-11 sales figures . . ."

2. Ask yourself, "WHY?" The answer might be, "Because we're only just in line with budget." Then ask WHY again, or SO WHAT?

And you might say, "Because any slip-ups in the last month could screw things up. There's no room for complacency. They need to keep at it right until the year-end if we're to hit budget . . .“ (AHA! Now your objective has changed. Instead of being to inform, it is now to motivate).

3. Third, ask yourself, "HOW WILL I KNOW I've got the message across?" Maybe you want a specific directive from the sales manager/VP, or commitments from the salespeople on specific volumes they will go for in month 12. If you get neither of these, how can you be sure you've achieved the objective!

Example 2:

You're making a sales presentation to a customer. Often salespeople will say their objective is 'to get the sale'. But unless you're expecting the customer to place an order right there and then, that wouldn't actually be your objective. Many sales are long, complex processes that take multiple meetings and presentations over weeks, months or even years.

1. So again, state "At the end of my presentation I want the customer/audience to (blank). . . " Here the 'blank' might be, "ask me to prepare a quote," or "agree to another meeting but with their CEO/VP Purchasing present." Your objective is therefore a 'persuade' on, not a 'sales' one.

The first time you present to a customer, you might be trying to 'sell' your company, and generate enough confidence in your abilities/expertise to move things to the next phase. If this is the case, ask yourself, 'How will I know I have achieved that?' Perhaps the answer is their agreement to arrange another meeting or introduce you to somebody else in their company. Perhaps it's something else. But whatever it is, THAT is your objective. Having people say 'I really enjoyed your presentation' afterwards is all fine and good for your ego, but if the customer doesn't agree to that second meeting, you've failed to achieve your objective.

You may also have a secondary objective, and I would recommend also having a personal one. A personal objective can be determined by asking the question: 'What do I want the audience to think of me after I have spoken'. For example:

I want my boss to see me as:

  • a good speaker
  • promotion material
  • his obvious successor,

I want the audience to

  • accept me as one of them
  • think I'm really, really clever
  • view me as a confident, well-respected professional
  • gasp in awe at my rhetoric

Do this for every speech or presentation you give, because it has relevance not only to the words you choose to deliver, but also the manner in which you will deliver them.

Also see:

How to hammer a point home

The importance of using Link Phrases


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