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Identifying Possible 'Perceived Threats' To Your Audience

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Have you ever given a presentation that was brilliantly prepared, devastating in its insight and irresistable in its logic . . . yet the audience said 'No'? And you couldn't understand why? Odds are you didn't get past their survival filter and they saw your proposal as a threat.

Movie poster for 'The Threat'

In Getting past your audience's Lizard brain I argued that any message you try to communicate has to go through the audience's 'survival filters 'before it stands a chance of being received and processed by the thinking part of their brains, the Neocortex. Because 'Is this a threat?' is the most basic, important question any living creature has to answer. If an animal can’t make the crucial distinction between friend and foe and know when to choose flight over fight, it will die. Period. The survival filter overrides everything else, even the powerful logic and rationality of the Neocortex.

Now all animals have their own definition of what constitutes a threat, depending on their position in the food chain. But as humans we are unique in that for us survival and safety are about more than just the physical. We also have psychological needs that can be threatened. And . . . these vary from person to person. What constitutes a psychological threat to one person might be completely unnoticed by another.

Each individual has a personal mindset, a mental set of rules about ‘the way the world works’ (or should work) and their position in it. They provide a life framework and knowing that they’re true makes us feel ‘safe’. This set of rules cover a wide variety of things, but could include (among a whole range of other things):

  • I believe devoutly in religion X and that all other religions are the work of the devil
  • I support political party Y and supporters of other parties are communists/fascist neocons
  • I believe man-made global warming is the greatest threat to the future of the earth
  • I believe global warming is a man-made conspiracy by speacial interest groups and big government in order to increase taxes
  • I believe the Chicago Blackhawks/Dallas Cowboys/LA Lakers/NY Yankees are the greatest sports team on earth
  • Children should obey their parents unconditionally
  • I am highly respected in my church/community
  • The father should be the main bread winner in the family
  • I love my country and believe it’s the greatest on earth
  • I believe in my right to bear arms and use them in self-defence
  • I believe in strict gun control
  • Government should provide a welfare safety net for the disadvantaged

An individual holding these beliefs might perceive an attack on any of them as an attack on himself, because it threatens the way he thinks the world ought to be. Now let’s take that a step further and look at how it applies to the workplace. In addition to their personal mindset above, individuals will have a similar one governing their workplace and their position in it. Among other things, this might include:

  • I am a hard worker
  • I/my team/my department am/are highly professional
  • X is my  or my department’s responsibility
  • Meeting customers is the Salesforce’s job, it’s got nothing to do with Marketing
  • A person’s status is inextricably linked with the number of people working for her
  • How the money in my budget is spent is nothing to do with Finance. Once it’s allocated to the budget, I control it.

Anything that attacks or undermines these beliefs will likewise be viewed as a threat or attack on that individual’s safety and security. Hmmm . . . still think your presentation can't be perceived as a threat?

Now we know there are other people who don’t share our views, and as long as they don’t try to convert us to their way of thinking, we’re happy to live and let live. But if they try to persuade us we’re wrong, it’s another story altogether.

What most of us do then is listen to the arguments extremely selectively, looking for evidence that backs up the viewsand preconceived ideas we already have, and completely ignore (or minimize) any that opposes them. At a very basic level, this is what happens when we buy our favorite newspaper or decide which news channel to watch. We don't pick ones that challenge our firmly held beliefs and ideologies and give us a refreshing mental workout by posing alternative views; instead we tend to pick ones that support the political views we already hold.

In the UK, someone with right wing views would rather poke themselves in the eye with a sharp stick rather than read the Guardian, and a left-winger would rather have a caesarean without anaesthetic rather than open The Telegraph. In the USA, most Tea Party members could probably think of several better things to do with the New York Times than read it, and most self-respecting Democrats would have nightmares even thinking of watching Fox News.

And we do the same thing when listening to arguments being presented to us in (e.g.) presentations. We loook selectively for facts, data and arguments that support what we already think. As Cordelia Fine writes in her book 'A Mind Of Its Own':

"The problem is we act like a smart lawyer searching for evidence to bolster his client's case,rather than a jury searching for the truth . . . Evidence that supports your case is quickly accepted . . . However, evidence that (doesn't) is subjected to gruelling cross-examination."

And don't think this is a function of low intelligence. In 1956 it was shown that exposing a pregnant woman to just one X-ray doubled the chances of childhood cancer, but it took almost 25 years in the US (and even longer in the UK) for this to be accepted as true. Why? Because the medical establishment just didn't want to believe it. It was a threat to their mindset on this particular subject. The evidence was ridiculed, ignored and subjected to withering criticism (the doctor responsible, Alice Stewart, was even subjected to personal attacks and accused of having become senile!).

In the late 1970s, by which time there was a huge amount of evidence linking pre-natal X-rays with childhood cancer, the US National Council on Radiation Protection actually suggested (I kid you not, this is true!) that the link was there because doctors were X-raying babies they somehow knew had cancer. Presumably through some sort of supernatural prophetic powers.

But even worse, is that we sometimes don't even listen to messages which oppose our views. In the 1960s two behavioral psychologists called Brock and Balloun conducted an experiment where half of the guinea pigs were committed church goers and the other half were atheists. Each group was played a tape recording attacking Christianity, and to it was added a crackle of static, which could be reduced by simply pressing a button. Yes, you've guessed it. The non-believers always tried to reduce the white noise, whereas the religious subjects actually preferred not being able to hear the message properly.

This is why logical argument seems to have no effect on some people. If a person is emotionally committed to a point of view, purely using logic to convince them of something else isn’t very effective. The fact that their views are 'under attack' means the message never reaches the Neocortex for logical analysis and the result is instantaneous, defensive behavior.

So a proposal from you that would save the company $50,000 per year might seem like a surefire winner to you – how could anyone possibly oppose it? – but if it threatens/undermines one of the beliefs underlying your audience's mindset, it may be rejected out of hand. It will never be processed by their collective Neocortex, because it will be opened by the Lizard Brain’s survival filter and rejected as a threat.

So when putting a presentation together and thinking of the C.A.B. (see Answering "What's In It For Me?" - The Importance Of Having A Compelling Audience Benefit (C.A.B.)) an important step is to look at your audience and think, "Is there any possible way the audience (or key members of it) could view what I'm presenting negatively? Will they welcome its content or oppose it? Could they view it as a threat for some reason?"

You need to really think hard about this. As you are fully aware of the benefits of your proposal, your initial response will probably be, "No - they'll be 100% behind it!" But how many times have you thought this only to run into unexpected (and to you - inexplicable) opposition. If you find yourself answering 'No', think again.

If you’re presenting about your department and how you can help them, will they see it as help, or as a power-grab which could affect their departments/ budgets/headcount/authority in the future? Your presentation will need to be very different if it’s the latter. If there’s the slightest chance this might be the case, their survival filters may reject what you have to say out of hand without even listening to your argument.

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