A Simple Three-Step Model for a Persuasive Presentation

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By Nick Morgan

J. Fogg called it Captology the science of how you get computers (think apps) to persuade people to do things. Fogg and his compatriots at Stanford have raised captology to a fine pitch, making it almost impossible for you to resist Angry Birds or Pokémon GO or whatever the current craze is. Call it digital persuasion, perhaps, but at its heart it’s all about an inanimate object (your mobile phone) persuading an animate object (that’s you) to do something over and over again. Smiling.

Fogg divined three steps in the process.  First, you must want to do it.  So, if you think gaming is wicked or sinful, you’re not likely to be persuaded.  Second, you must be able to do it.  If the game or the product or the habit is too difficult for you, you won’t do it.  It has to be possible for someone with your abilities.  And third, you must be prompted to do it.  Even that is only effective when either of the first two steps are strongly lodged in your mind.  You’re highly motivated, or the task is easy.  Seems obvious, but then so is asking for the sale, and how hard is that for most people to do?

It’s useful to think about this model in the context of public speaking, because what a speaker is usually doing is trying to get the audience to do something – either by thinking differently, or acting differently.  Does Fogg’s model help us to design better and more persuasive speeches?

Yes – in fact, it suggests a three-step structure that is more useful than the usual beginning –middle – end model typically put forward by bazillions of mediocre books and blog posts on public speaking.

Step one – want to do it.  Begin by imagining that you’re going to predispose your audience toward the point of view you’re trying to get them to adopt.  To do so, you either need to offer them a positive alternative to how they’re thinking now, or show them that they’ll suffer if they continue to think the way they are – or both at once.

The speaker has the awesome power of framing – that is, the first words she utters create the topic of the presentation.  The first few moments of a speech are in fact the most powerful, precisely because the audience is tuned in, enthusiastic (usually) and ready to turn over authority temporarily.  That authority is yours, as the speaker, to squander.

So don’t waste time with introductions, or agendas, or chit-chat.  Jump right in and give the audience a way to think that either takes them to a new place they’ve never been before, or pulls the status quo rug out from under them.

Step two – be able to do it. This step is all about understanding your audience.  You don’t want to offer them something that’s too difficult – and you don’t want to insult their intelligence, either.  You have to persuade them that your POV is both interesting and embraceable.  That is, the audience can not only see the advantages to coming around to your argument, but also the path forward.  Make it easier for them to think the way you want them to, rather than the way they’re thinking now.

Step three – prompt (the audience) to act. Of all the sins of public speaking, the saddest is the failure to make “the ask” at the end of a presentation.  You’ve bent the audience’s ear for an hour, and they are ready to do something about it – if only to make the investment of the last hour seem worthwhile. Don’t underestimate this need, either – it’s the same reason why we double down on a poker bet, or buy more shares of a losing stock – we want to believe that what we’ve done before was worth it.

So make your case, make it clear and simple, and make the ask.  Follow those three steps and you’ll have the audience swarming you like a flock of happy birds, anxious to keep doing whatever it is you asked them to do.


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