In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner laid out their classic case that in some financial situations, apparent surface motivations can cover up deeper motivations and cause consumers to misunderstand who is on their side, what the best deal is, and so on and so forth. 

Their illustration of a realtor’s apparent financial incentive to sell your house for the most money is a perfect example: since the realtor’s commission is calculated according to the sale price of the home, you’d think they’d want to get top dollar. But when you run the numbers, you realize they’re actually more likely to have a, “bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” mentality when it comes to selling your home.

When we present, we have to think critically about what is motivating the audience. They have their surface motivations, which are valid, but we have to consider the deeper motivations that might have a more pronounced effect on what the audience does after you’ve presented your case. 

For example, in large manufacturing and retailing organizations, the purchasing team has an obvious and direct incentive to obtain the best possible quality goods at the best possible price. But it takes an enormous amount of time to qualify and approve new suppliers, and many purchasing teams are trim and efficient, without a lot of extra hours to do that kind of work. The surface level motivation would lead us to believe that any new company claiming better quality or lower price would be able to get an audience with the purchasing team; the deeper motivation is that they just don’t have time to mess with new companies.

The difference in how we approach our audiences in light of these motivations is huge. In the above example, a company seeking to become a supplier might be tempted to present solely on the topics of quality and price, but a more appropriate angle might be to present on how they are able to streamline the vetting process, assist with paperwork and documentation, etc. 

Every audience has some level of conflict in their motivations. When, as presenters, we fail to apply a level of insight and depth to our messaging as we seek to hit the core motivation factors, we run the risk of shooting ourselves in the foot. Understanding what really gets an audience going is a huge part of being a great presenter. If you don’t do this already, it’s time to introduce this kind of critical thinking to your brainstorming and content outlining process. Before we get into anything else related to the presentation, we need to define with clarity and depth just what it is that our audience really cares about. 

Question: Have you ever misread your audience’s true motivations? What happened, and how did you adapt?

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