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Setting The Scene (II)

Logos of Whole-Brain Presenting customers

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n Using Stories To Set The Scene I explained how to 'set the audience up' for your presentation by starting with a story that creates the right frame of mind. I said there were three steps:

  1. Tell the story (see 8 tips for adding 'oomph!' to your stories)
  2. Explain the point it's meant to make
  3. Link it to the presentation topic

Let's say you find yourself in a position where your company's on the receiving end of a lot of criticism from customers (or your department or team is getting it from other departments), and it isn't really justified. The critics are arguing emotionally not logically. The message you want to deliver to your managers or team is that instead of arguing with the critics, they need to be perceived as being empathetic and flexible. They need not only to listen to the concerns being expressed, but to be seen to be listening.

You think this probably won't go down very well; your audience know they aren't really wrong, and won't like the idea of pretending they are. So you need to put them in the right frame of mind to listen to your message. Here's three different ways you could do it:

1. The siege of Pergamus

It's 131.B.C. and the Roman consul Publius Crassus Dives Mucianus is laying siege to the Greek town of Pergamus. He's seen a couple of ships' masts in the docks at Athens a couple of days earlier and he orders them to be brought to him to be used as battering rams. The Athenian engineer who's given the order is convinced the smaller of the two is more appropriate and what's more, will be cheaper to transport. Despite the soldiers sent by Mucianus telling him their commander really does want the larger one and he's not a man to be argued with, the engineer says he's the expert and knows best. In the end he reluctantly agrees to send the larger one but when the soldiers have left, he changes his mind and sends the small one. He knows best. He's the expert.

When the smaller of the two masts arrives, Murcianus goes ballistic and orders the engineer brought before him immediately. When he arrives, the Athenian argues with the consul, going on and on and using the same arguments he's used with the soldiers. He tells him he doesn't understand, that his decision to send the smaller one is the right one. That he should listen to the expert. Instead the consul lets him finish and then has him stripped naked and beaten with iron rods until he dies.

Now the engineer actually was right. He really did have more knowledge and expertise than the Consul. The smaller ram would have allowed more speed and thus gathered more force. Larger isn't necessarily better. All he thought he needed to do was use more logic, and the consul would see the validity of his argument. He was what we might call 'an Arguer', a type we find all around us.

The Arguer doesn't understand that logic will rarely overcome emotion, and that telling someone, 'You're wrong!' is probably the worst thing you can possibly do if you want to convince them of something. When someone's arguing emotionally and you're arguing logically, you'll rarely agree. It's like you're using two different languages. He's using Mandarin Chinese, you're speaking Swahili.

Turning a difference of opinion into an argument is counter-productive. The more you argue, the more you end up digging your own grave. The only way you can get someone to listen to logic in a situation like this is to strip the emotion out of it. And you don't do this by arguing. You do it by listening. And being seen to listen.

And that's what we're going to do with our customers/critics. Right now they have some concerns they're convinced are genuine. We know those concerns are unnecessary, but that's not the point. Their perception is that they are, and perception is more important than reality. So instead of telling them they're wrong and turning a difference of opinion into an argument, we're going to listen to them and take great pains to be seen to be listening . . .

2. Michelangelo and David's nose

It's 1502 and Michelangelo has been commissioned to carve a statue from a magnificent slab of marble in Renaissance Florence. The problem is that it's had a large hole bored through it where the legs would normally go, and all other artists have declared it unworkable. But Michelangelo isn't deterred by the challenge, and he eventually produces one of his masterpieces, a young David, sling in hand.

As he's putting the finishing touches to it, Florence's mayor Piero Soderini arrives at the studio and fancying himself a bit of a connoisseur, says he thinks the nose is too big. Now most artists would throw a temperamental hissy fit, throw down their chisel and refuse to finish the statue at this, but Michelangelo realizes Solderini's standing underneath the giant figure and doesn't have the proper perspective.

So he asks the mayor to follow him up the scaffolding. When he reaches the nose he takes his chisel and a handful of dust and lightly taps the statue, letting the dust fall from his hand. He doesn't actually do anything to the nose, but after a couple of minutes asks, 'What about now?'

Able to see the statue from the correct perspective, Solderini says, 'I like it better. Now you've made it come alive!'

Michelangelo would have been perfectly in his rights to have put Solderini in his place, proved him wrong and refused to do anything. But apart from offending his customer's pride, he would also have put his future relationship with the man in jeopardy. His solution was to look like he was listening and look as if he was reacting to his concerns. And by doing so, both men got what they wanted. Solderini's ego was massaged, and Michelangelo didn't have to make any alterations.

Right now our customers/critics have concerns they're convinced are genuine. We know those concerns are unnecessary, but that's not the point. Their perception is that they are, and perception is more important than reality. So instead of telling them they're wrong and turning a difference of opinion into an argument, we're going to listen to them and take great pains to be seen to be listening . . .

3. Sir Christopher Wren

It's 1688 and Sir Christopher Wren - astronomer, mathematician, scientist and architect - is building a magnificent town hall for the city of Westminster in England. But the mayor's nervous; he tells Wren that the second floor looks insecure and he's afraid it will collapse, asking for two extra columns for extra support.

The architect knows that his fears are groundless and the columns are completely unnecessary but instead of arguing, builds them anyway. It's only many years later that workmen on a high scaffold notice that the columns stop two inches short of the ceiling; they're dummies. But by building them, both men got what they wanted. The mayor, knowing Wren had listened to his concerns., was able to relax, and Wren knew posterity would understand that his original work was fine as it was.

Right now our customers/critics have concerns they're convinced are genuine. We know those concerns are unnecessary, but that's not the point. Their perception is that they are, and perception is more important than reality. So instead of telling them they're wrong and turning a difference of opinion into an argument, we're going to listen to them and take great pains to be seen to be listening . . .

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