Presenting a Persuasive Business Case

POSTED: Jul. 27, 2016

A problem has been reoccurring for years. Everyone agrees it is time to stop talking about it and finally implement a solution. Yet, every time a solution is presented to decision-makers, the idea is met with resistance and no action is taken. Once this situation has happened a number of times, people who were creative thinkers and enthusiastic problem-solvers have now become complacent and silent. People often say, “Why bother trying? No matter how great the idea, the answer will be ‘no’ anyway. They keep saying they want logic, not magic. What does that mean?”

Does this situation sound familiar in your workplace? Perhaps you have become one of those who have given up trying to present new ideas because you believe nothing you say matters. If only magic words really did exist that would convince others to our way of thinking – words that speak the truth so clearly that no one could possibly possess an opposing view or act in opposition to our call for action. Unfortunately, these magic words do not exist…with the obvious exception of the words “please” and “thank you” that our mothers told us are quite powerful. But, how many times have you become frustrated that your logical idea was not adopted and incredulous that the idea was actually questioned and debated? After all, the idea is pure common sense that anyone should understand, right?

Therein lies the problem: what exactly is logical, common sense? I have heard many people assert that the instructions they gave someone were “simply good common sense steps,” but then became confused when no one followed those instructions. People solve problems by different methods, possess different knowledge, perceive the world in different ways and have different priorities. Why then do we expect people to accept an idea simply because it makes sense to us? How often are we guilty of imposing our will on others without thinking about why this would be a logical course of action from their point of view?

People are adamant about what they believe to be simple, easy-to-accept common sense concepts. Showing passionate commitment to an idea can be very persuasive. However, if the idea itself is not relevant to the listener’s situation or is not presented in an understandable way, the idea will be dismissed no matter how passionately it was presented. In fact, the more a listener knows about a subject, the less likely that person will be influenced by emotional appeal or charisma.

The first and most important guideline for presenting a persuasive business case, therefore, is to define the topic from the decision-maker’s point of view. What do they need to hear to be persuaded? An example of the importance of this strategy happened several years ago in a presentation skills course I was teaching at Kent State University. The student’s topic choice was to convince us that Richard Nixon was a good president. Unfortunately, the presenter failed to define the factors that make a “good president” from her audience’s point of view. Instead of talking about leadership decisions that impacted the country in a positive way, for example, she used the following argument to convince us, “When Nixon was in China, he arranged to have panda bears brought back to zoos in the U.S.” Jaws dropped in simultaneous disbelief throughout the room. Procuring pandas makes someone a good president?

Now consider your target audience or decision-maker. If this person is only concerned with budget, talk about how your idea affects the budget. If you start your presentation by talking about how your idea affects customer service, it may be a valid point, but it will be ignored because of the budgetary concern. You must “sell” your ideas based on your “buyer’s” needs. How many sales associates have you ignored because they started droning on about features of a product you do not need? You must capture attention by starting with what matters most to your listener. Once the primary concern has been sufficiently addressed, you can then discuss customer service or any other selling points the listener will find important.

Note that the operative words are “selling points the listener will find important.” You may be working with a problem directly and know how your solution will affect you and your colleagues, but what are the concerns of your target decision-makers? If you are presenting to high-level managers, they must make decisions based on a high level view of the organization, not just on how the problem affects you and your group. How does your idea affect other departments or company goals? What would persuade the board of directors if your decision-maker were to present your idea to them? In order to be persuasive, it is imperative to go beyond how the topic affects us. If our focus is only on what we believe to be important or how we are affected by the problem, we could be perceived as nothing but whiners whose proposal is not critical to consider. Do you want to be a complainer or a convincer? Remember: humans are constantly asking themselves “How does this idea affect me?” To be persuasive you must provide the answer to that question for them.

But, what if their primary concern is a negative aspect of your business case? When a strong objection is universally known, you must acknowledge its existence and address it early in your remarks. Hopefully, you will be able to refute the objection with new information the listener has not heard before. No one is convinced by the same information they have already considered. Give your listeners a new perspective on the topic. At the very least, present old information in a new way.

If you fail to acknowledge a universally known objection, you may be interrupted and challenged before you even have a chance to offer positive attributes of the idea. In the student’s “Nixon and Pandas” presentation, she failed to even mention Watergate. Question-answer session was completely consumed by discussion of this issue and any persuasive arguments she had made were lost in the melee. In her situation, however, refuting Watergate was not an option. What could she say, “Oh, it wasn’t that big of a deal?” No, but the strategy would have been to acknowledge Watergate and agree with listeners about its negative affect on the country. The next step would have been to ask the audience to put the objection aside for ten minutes while other points were presented. The negatives and positives of the subject could then be weighed during a group discussion after all other information was revealed. Of course it is possible that listeners would maintain their objection that Watergate was too negative for them to view Nixon’s presidency as a positive, but she would have had the opportunity to offer other arguments in that ten minutes. Sometimes the goal of a persuasive message is to open listener’s minds to another point of view. Listeners may then be willing to schedule a follow-up presentation in which a call for action to support and implement the solution could be proposed. Trying to accomplish too much before decision-makers are ready to even listen to the idea can result in a “no” answer.

If your goal is to achieve commitment for implementation of your idea, then make it easy for action to occur. Keep them focused on doing, not deciding. What can be done today to start the process in an easy-to-accomplish step? Take the stairs instead of the elevator. You are on your way to a 10,000 steps per day goal. Perhaps the decision-maker has an aversion for risk-taking. The business case should include information on how to minimize the risk, examples of when similar risks were taken with successful outcomes in the past and a simple starting point plan. Suggest reviewing the success of each implemented step before embarking on the next step. This way decisions are being made about small steps, not huge, devastating-if-it-fails initiatives. Remove fear of taking action.

Preparing the content of your proposal to create connection with your listeners is critical to being persuasive. However, smooth, confident delivery of the message is also important to your business case being accepted. Too many PowerPoint slides will detract from your ability to look people directly in the eye and demonstrate your commitment to the proposal. Presenting too much background detail or extraneous data will not only confuse the decision-maker, but will also surround your strongest arguments with “noise.” Avoid technical jargon. Know your audience. Terminology used by chemical engineers may be unfamiliar to electrical engineers simply for lack of daily use of the word. Be descriptive, but not wordy. Often presenters know their information, but are unfamiliar with the order in which they want to present this information causing awkward pauses. Practice. View questions as opportunities to adapt your message to the immediate needs of your listeners, not attacks or interruptions. Believe in yourself and your ideas. State your case and prove it.

Hopefully it is clear that the more directly focused on the listener’s needs we are, the more persuasive we are. So many issues bombard decision-makers on any given day that they often most readily accept information that can be visualized the most easily and approve the proposals that answer their questions before they even ask them. Remember: the listener determines how successfully a message was delivered and received, not the presenter. And the decision-maker determines what will ultimately persuade them. This is what is meant by “logic, not magic.” It makes sense to me!

Interested in enhancing your teams’ presentation skills? Check out Kent State’s Presenting a Persuasive Business Case program today!