Answering the “So what?” question

You’ve spent the last twenty minutes passionately describing your latest grand idea.  You’ve used big gestures and eye-catching visuals to demonstrate the awesomeness of your work, and, yet …  Too many people are shifting in their seats or scanning their smartphones.  Those who are looking at you have an odd bored/terrified expression, as if they want to scream, “When are you going to stop talking?!?”

You crafted great slides, you practiced your presentation, and you showed your passion.  So what went wrong?  Why isn’t everyone as excited as you are about your work?

It’s likely that you forgot a key rule of persuasive communication: Make the audience care.   Aristotle used the term “pathos” when he wrote in Rhetoric that understanding and appealing to the audience’s emotions is vital to persuasion – and most professional communication involves persuasion.

Whether you are pitching a new project to a potential client, seeking funding, or just trying to gain some recognition for your efforts, you must first answer the “So what?” question. No matter how great your idea or proposal is, you will not persuade people to act unless you can help them understand, upfront, WHY your work matters to them, the company, and/or the broader world.

Your introductory slide (in a presentation) or paragraph (in a proposal) should set the scene so the audience can grasp why your work matters.  To understand what matters to your audience, consider their roles and objectives and then appeal to their needs and interests.  How will your great idea help them achieve their goals or address an important problem?  Will it save money and/or time?  Will it streamline processes?  Will it make the impossible possible?

After you hook the audience with the answer to why they should care, weave the details of that answer throughout your presentation or proposal and skip the jargon.  How will your idea save money? When will the savings begin? What has to happen first, next, last?  What can the audience do make your idea a reality?

By tailoring your pitch to the needs of your audience, you will have a better chance at rallying them to your cause.

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