Master Your Message Blog

Being Persuasive: Why Open with a Problem

In persuasive presentations, you need to get to the point. Stories have their place, but it’s usually not at the beginning of a presentation, unless it’s structured so that the point is obvious … and alluded to up front.

Lady being persuasive in front of a small groupI was in Toronto recently sitting across from my brother. We had  been invited to a friend’s house for a dinner in honor of my mother, who was turning ninety. The phone rang. It was the host. I could hear the entire conversation as it continued on. After the usual pleasantries, she began to tell a story of having a last minute client request that would have her unexpectedly work during the afternoon, which meant she would have to drive into town, do the work, and then drive back to her home before beginning to think about dinner.

The story continued for at least three minutes while I rolled my eyes and my brother made a circular motion with his hands to express his “get on with it,” not-so-inner feelings. Finally, she asked whether my brother could host the dinner instead.

The most important part of a persuasive presentation is “the start.”

I probably don’t have to tell you that this approach doesn’t work in business. Many bosses simply aren’t polite enough to wait through a long story to hear the point. They don’t have the time in a busy day for a puzzle (i.e. “What on earth are you talking about?”).

That’s why it’s important to begin with the problem or opportunity – in conversations, phone calls, emails, and yes, presentations. Particularly presentations.

There are other reasons to start your presentation with the problem (or “opportunity,” but most presentations in business tend to be fundamentally about solving a problem).

Here are five great reasons to begin your persuasive presentation this way:

  1. It puts you on the same page as your audience. In a presentation situation, the audience is there for one reason and one reason alone – to get a solution to a problem, to stop the “pain.” In order to cement the fact that your solution is a credible one, you must first agree on what the problem is. Many problems have shades of grey to them. It’s really important to articulate the problem up front – it can be a huge source of credibility and creates a common foundation from which you can build to a solution. It’s the most powerful way to grab and hold their attention. After all, you’re talking about them.
  2. It puts you on the same side as your audience. In many sales situations, you can be perceived as someone out to make a sale – someone interested more in you and your product or service than that of the audience. However, talking about the problem right up front puts you both on the same side. If you can show empathy for their position and give them the feeling that you truly understand the gravity of the situation, this can set the problem up as a third party, if you will. You and your audience are on one side, the problem on the other.
  3. It tells them instantly what you’re going to talk about. I’ve sat through way too many presentations that leave me wondering after the opening, “What on earth is this thing about?” I’m sure you have, too. It’s critically important to “get to the point” in a persuasive presentation. That’s why focussing on the problem right away (along with briefly suggesting the solution) is the most effective way to begin your persuasive presentation. You need to leave you audience with no doubt as to what it is you’re talking about so that the remainder of the time you have with them can be spent on addressing well-thought-out, targeted benefits.
  4. It signals that their issue is really important to you by putting it right up front. In presentations, arguably the most important part is the start. If you hook your audience then, you should have their attention throughout. There is nothing that will hook them like a topic you have in common – one that has been bothering them. Putting it right up front signifies its importance.
  5. If you have researched the problem and show you really understand it, it gives you instant credibility. I have yet to meet a prospective client who is not tremendously impressed by a presenter having taken their own time to talk to staff, do some reading, research the net – whatever it takes to really get a grasp on the underlying “pain.”

Let’s get back to that phone conversation. If our friend has started with, “Some complications have arisen which will cause me to be very late in preparing dinner tonight and I wondered if you’d be both willing and able to host in my stead? I’ll still be there, albeit a little late.” You’ll likely get an initial response – haha. Then you can tell the story … if needed.

I suggest to my clients that they keep in mind this simple structure – Problem, Solution, Why. It works for everything from conversations through presentations. It’s simplistic for presentations (they’re usually a bit more complicated), but the basic structure still forms the basis of a persuasive presentation.

Your introduction and ability to create rapport with your audience also contribute to being persuasive.

There are two more elements that come before the opening that I’ve described above and they’re critically important. The first is the introduction. The very best scenario is for you to write your own introduction and have someone with authority deliver it (after they’ve had a chance to become familiar with it). The more powerful and succinct the introduction, the more persuasive you’ll be and the more fun you’ll have.

Finally, the element of creating rapport. Your first words will likely be devoted to developing rapport with the audience. I often use the analogy of “shaking hands.” It may be a line or two relating to your introduction, how you got to the event – there are many ways to create rapport and there are fabulous articles on the web about this aspect of your presentation alone. Don’t forget to do it and make sure it’s appropriate to the situation.

For my article and video on the structure of the opening in more detail, click here.

I don’t believe there is any part of your presentation more important than the opening. It should be well-thought-out, rehearsed to some degree, and delivered with the utmost of confidence. So, in your next persuasive presentation, consider starting with the problem (after you’ve “shaken hands,” of course).

Comments for this Post

  • Stephanie Staples September 22, 2011, 5:09 am

    Oh-oh, I saw myself in this article! Thanks for the wise tips which I will begin incorporating now in business and in life.


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