The “call to action” is a classic tactic in marketing, sales, advertising and other fields. In public speaking and presentations, we are encouraged to provide a call to action to our audience.
It’s something that focuses the audience on a specific task, and helps them understand how to put your ideas and recommendations into practice.
But there’s a problem with the classic call to action.
People don’t like being told what to do. They have a natural aversion to it.
Speaking for myself, as soon as someone tells me directly “buy this” or “signup for that”, I put up a barrier.
From that point on, I look at everything they say with skepticism and resistance.
Yes, some people are more open to being directed and led. You always have to know your audience.
And in certain contexts, it is much easier for the speaker to just give directives and expect people to follow them.
Presentations to lower-ranking colleagues can have plenty of direct calls to action, with the expectation that they will be followed.
And when presenting to senior leadership, it’s good to have a detailed, focused call to action that helps them understand the changes you are recommending.
But I think these days, more and more people want to think for themselves. Or at least to feel like they are thinking for themselves.
Indirect calls to action are useful in situations where you have less formal influence.
They are also useful where the audience is more skeptical, independent-thinking or resistant to change.
And that’s where the following persuasion strategies come into play.
Note that these are not mutually exclusive. You can combine some or all of these techniques with each other to make a compelling presentation.
1. Tell a story and take them on a journey.
This has two big benefits.
Second, if structured and told well, a story is just plain fun for your audience.
A good story incorporates emotions and personality, and creates entertainment for the audience.
This lowers their defenses and makes them more open to your point of view.
They will be more receptive, and will “get the gist” of what you are saying without you needing to say it outright.
2. The trial lawyer technique: let them come to the conclusion on their own.
Trial lawyers are required to provide evidence supporting their side of the case. But it’s ultimately up to the judge or jury to arrive at the judgment.
In this strategy, you provide all the evidence, but you stop short of actually articulating the specific course of action.
The challenge, as any attorney will tell you, is to have a solid case.
Your evidence has to be extremely robust. It has to address every possible skepticism and challenge that an observer might have.
One or two high-level talking points isn’t going to cut it.
You must know the kind of evidence, data, anecdotes and messaging that will resonate with your audience. And then you must deliver those in your presentation clearly and confidently.
Leave no stone unturned.
If you’ve done your job right, the call to action should be stupidly obvious.
3. Cite comparable decisions from others.
This plays on the power of social proof.
To nudge them further in the direction you want to go, mention the actions or behaviors of people or organizations similar to your audience.
The silent narrative is: “Others like you have done this specific thing, and it worked out for them. It will work out for you too.”
Many executives are very interested in what the competition is doing.
Customers are persuaded more by third-party testimonials than by anything you might say about your own product.
4. Provide multiple options, while highlighting your own preference.
Here, instead of forcing them into a binary in/out decision, you present your call to action alongside other potential options.
And you explain which is your preferred option and why.
You provide evidence and arguments in favor of your call to action, tying it back to the main body of your presentation.
You can even explain the pros and cons of each option.
This shows thoughtfulness and deep analysis. And it further avoids the perception that you really, really want them to conform to your personal preference.
How many options should you provide?
A good default number is three options, because of the Rule of Three.
And don’t provide too many options. The audience can get overwhelmed with choices.
Curate the various possible actions and present the best ones.
Being an advisor, not a teacher
Most speakers default to a “teaching” style when they are presenting. So it’s no wonder that many calls to action don’t get implemented.
But if you think of yourself as an advisor, you provide useful information, guidance and insight, without requiring your audience to do anything specific.
This makes them more open, as we have seen.
But it also creates another exciting possibility: that they will build and add onto your perspective and create an even more powerful call to action.
When you set yourself up as the final authority, you’re essentially shutting down the conversation. You give a presentation, make a recommendation, and that’s that. They will either do it or they won’t.
But when you position yourself in an advisory capacity, you are not mandating a specific call to action. You are creating a dialogue and empowering them to come to their own conclusions.
And sometimes their conclusion is even better than the one you thought of.
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