Kelly Vandever - Communications for Everyone

It’s Not Enough to Represent a Just Cause – How Can You Reach Your Audience?

In Presentation Tips on April 21, 2011 at 2:39 pm

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Can We Get Our Audience to Listen ... Even When We Can't All Cure Cancer?

I attended a panel discussion of a group of senior executives this morning.  The moderator asked the panel a question about employee retention.  One executive responded that he works to make sure his staff understands how their responsibilities fit into the bigger picture of the company.  He said, “We’re not curing cancer, but what we do is still pretty important.”  Another panelist agreed in the approach and reiterated, “Well we’re not curing cancer, but it’s important to our clients.”  One executive on the panel actually did work for a company who helps physicians cure cancer – I guess the others were feeling less than adequate.

It is important that leaders help employees understand how their job fits into the bigger picture of the company.  It’s important for people to feel they’re making a contribution toward a greater good.  But when it comes to presentations, there’s a danger with being too emotionally wrapped up in your message.

Emotional Appeal Overload

Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re one of those people who works on a cure for cancer.  Is there anything you could possible say that could be wrong?  “Sorry for not following up with on that email.  I was busy curing cancer.”  Maybe not.   Maybe you’ve got a free pass because you’re doing such important work.  But to motivate an audience to take an action, simply representing a just cause isn’t enough.  The reason is emotional appeal overload.

Let’s face it.  There are sixteen gazillion just causes in the world.  Help a wounded warrior.  Rescue a child from slave trafficking.  Save the rain forest.  There is an abundance of amazing organizations doing good work toward just causes.  But it’s also easy as the person being exposed to all these just causes to get emotionally overloaded and shut down.  “I already feed a poor child in India.  Do I need to do anything else?”  Sure it’s hard to look a person in the eye and say “no” to their worthy cause.  But in a presentation situation, it’s far easier for the individual audience members to retreat into the anonymity of a group.  If you want to reach the audience, regardless of how just your cause is, you need to meet them where they’re at.

What Do They Care About

Understand what’s important to the members of your audience.  What are the messages that members of the group send out about themselves?  How is your message aligned with how they see themselves?  People are selfish, but we don’t want to be made to feel guilty about it.  We want to do the right thing, but we already assume we’re doing what’s right in the best way we know how.  And we will stick to our perspective when we fear we’ll lose face, even though underneath, we may feel uneasy and fear that we are wrong.  Simply beating someone over the head with your message is not enough.  We all crave meaning to our lives.  But we don’t want to be made to feel selfish, or stupid, or poorly because our meaning in life isn’t as meaningful as yours.

People want to change but they need to be given a way to change that preserves their dignity, is congruent with who they are as people, and isn’t so hard to do that they know they won’t do it.  Provide your audience with this information, and you’ll have a better chance of making a different when it matters.

Maybe you won’t cure cancer.  But what you do does make a difference.

What Have You Found that Works?

How have you been able to reach an audience and persuade them to take action.  Love to hear your comments!

  1. You’ve touched on a really important issue. It has made me think of all the appeals to help people in Haiti, Japan, Australia, the Gulf…the needs are endless as is the desire to help. These are tough choices.

    Your point about targeting and tailoring the appeal to the audience is key. The other piece is setting realistic expectations. Out of a group of 50,say, would motivating 3 people to act feel like a successful presentation?

    I also think that offering a range of involvement options from time, to gift levels, to sharing information are ways to get people started on a commitment. Awareness is always the start with action following when the right button is pushed. Thanks for this strategy to get things going. ~Dawn

    • Dawn – Thanks for the comments and the suggestions. I like the suggestion of options. People know what level of commitment they can handle. Offering options gives them a way to help that fits. Thanks for adding to the discussion! Kelly

  2. I loved how you called out all the emotional goo that happens in emotional overload around doing good, being good, etc. It feels awesome to see it just written out, plain as day.

    Many executives do a poor job translating the interesting, unusual, or unique things their companies do, down to the average employee. Unfortunately the lack of communication results in many cubical residents wondering what it’s all for…

    • Elizabeth – Thanks for the comments. Never underestimate the power of communications! Kelly

  3. As you said and Dawn reiterated, it is easy to be on emotional/giving help overload. Sometimes people throw up their arms and don’t do anything because the choices are overwhelming and, as you said, who wants to feel bad about not donating $ or time to a good cause.

    What I found too is that when I would donate then I’d be inundated with another and another and another request from the same org. until I didn’t want to be involved with them at all. So I also think providing balance in your requests to a supporter is key. (It can also happen with volunteer time, not just $)/

  4. Hi Kelly–

    I enjoyed this post, and couldn’t agreee more about the delicate balance of conveying emotion, but not over-doing it.

    As I read, I thought of a grocery store that always asks if you would like to donate the rounding up on the dollar of your bill to XYZ charity/cause. This is after you were likely approached at the entrance of the store, and asked to contribute money or groceries to a different cause.

    Sometimes I want to explain, “I’m a social worker. I help people all day long!!”, but I know that isn’t appropriate. I try to avoid that store as much as possible:).

    I think if you’re the presenter and your topic is emotionally- laden, you may want to start off acknowledging the fact that there are many important, worthy causes, and yes, you’ll be presenting on another one today. Also, find a way to engage your audience in the beginning, ask for feedback, use humor, etc. If you present in an authentic voice, people will likely stick around longer.

    Yes, people are selfish, but we don’t want to feel guilty about that-ugh!

    • Linda – I agree – authenticity and humor can make a great impact! Thanks for adding to the discussion! Kelly

  5. Hi Kelly,
    I can’t help thinking about my first country Denmark, where I grew up and lived until 39. We paid such a high tax that we were relieved of guilt because the state of DK took care of that for all of us.
    Now living here in the US the guilt is back – ugh, and I know what you are talking about. I like to make my own choices and give when I can. I do not like the push methods that are used to make ppl guilty and pay! Thanks for a great post!

    • Irene – Thanks for adding a new point of view. I would have never thought of taxes relieving guilt! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  6. I like your matter of fact tone and the fact that your audience is likely on guilt and giving overload. Agree with previous comments. All very wise. Research shows people get avoidant if the fear level is too high. I think it could help to add a positive such as explaining the concrete benefits their donation could produce. Also, ask for something small to begin with.

    • Melanie – Thank you for joining the conversation. I like your recommendations about the concrete benefits and starting small to begin with. Thanks for adding your wisdom. Kelly

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