We live in a world of immediate gratification, constant engagement and the never-ending pursuit of comfort. From our abiding attachment to the smartphones we collectively check nearly 8 billion times a day to the streaming music and video services that provide us 24/7 access to the media we love on demand, effective presentation skills rely on pulling people's focus from these distractions and getting them to actively listen. If it is a topic built around data knowledge and subject matter expertise, this can be a significant challenge.
The Power of Discomfort
This challenge isn't one lost on Josh Bersin, Founder and Principal at Bersin by Deloitte. As the one responsible for Deloitte's long term strategy and market eminence, Bersin has witnessed and given countless presentation to scores of industry professionals and subject matter experts. As a thought leader in the space of talent and leadership development, Bersin recently published an article in the Harvard Business Review, spotlighting one of the most valuable — yet counterintuitive — weapons in the arsenal of presenters: the power of discomfort.
"When I was on the high school debate team in the 1970s, we studied the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance, and I've since used it to create thousands of speeches and inspirational talks," Bersin wrote. "The idea behind it is very simple: If you want a group of people to adopt your point of view, start by describing some difficult or painful issue they're faced with."
He goes on to describe how emphasizing an issue creates a discomfort in your audience, one that can help focus attention on you and your words. The "problem" comes as they contrast their preexisting notions with what you are saying, either in the form of questioning their previous assumptions or looking at their actions in the context of what they are now learning. "That dissonance ratchets up their discomfort, which makes them want to fix it," he added. "From there, you move to your explanation of the problem, and then to your proposed solution, which will replace the dissonance with harmony."
Discomofort as Building Narrative
On the surface, this may seem like a dangerous stylistic gambit: Why would you ever want to make your audience feel uncomfortable? Because the way most people deal with discomfort is to seek a resolution.
It should be noted that the kind of discomfort Bersin is referring to isn't necessarily aggressive or confrontational. Rather, it's a narrative device — something unexpected, troublesome or puzzling that your audience cannot immediately conquer. This is echoed in the advice of this Inc. Magazine article which advocates that speakers "start with a the unexpected." In this regard, the sharp, dramatic "bang" moment of your introduction is the dissonance that will later be resolved.
This psychological mechanism helps build up the narrative of your presentation: Early on, you introduce a problem (discomfort) and then you give your audience the tools (subject matter expertise and knowledge) to resolve it. In contrast to simply presenting dry data insights in a one-sided manner, introducing a "problem" and walking through the investigation and eventual solution with your audience makes your speech interactive. They may not be engaging with you verbally, but in their heads they are working to solve the dissonance. And the only method to do this is to drink in your words, requiring focus.
"Unlike the 'instant on' communication in Twitter, or even email, presentations give you time and room to make your case and — with help from your voice, face, and gestures — convince people that they should respond to your call to action," commented Bersin.
No matter what you want your takeaway to be, the basic "call to action" he is referring to lies buried in the way you create — and eventually resolve — dissonance and discomfort.