Table of Contents, How To Present To Any Audience Resources Page
Previous Section, How To Present To Any Audience Next Section, How To Present To Any Audience

Westside Toastmasters is located in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, California

Chapter 14: How to Persuade Through a Talk


Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric, in his book, Straight From the Gut, writes about never wanting to see a planning book before someone presented it. He said, "To me the value of these sessions wasn't in the book . . . I needed to see the business leaders' body language and the passion they poured into their arguments."

He went on to say, "Making initiatives successful is all about focus and passionate commitment."

Toward the end of the book, he discusses passion specifically: "Whenever I go to Crotonville and ask a class what qualities define an ‘A' player, it always made me happiest to see the first hand go up and say, ‘Passion.' For me intensity covers a lot of sins. If there is one characteristic all winners share, it's that they care more than anyone else."

Winners show they care; they don't hold back. We gravitate to these leaders because they appear so committed to their beliefs. Their commitment makes it easier for us to follow their lead, to "jump on board" their ship.

A Leap of Faith

This jump is a leap of faith. We usually don't "leap" unless the leader leaps first. Our leader has to show us that he or she is assuming risk and that the cause is worth it. The leader has to passionately want us to join in or join up, to be with him or her "on the other side."

How does that apply to you if you want to persuade through a talk? You'll probably not be successful through intellectual argument alone. You'll have to show that you believe, that you care, that you're totally committed. You must share feelings, emotions, beliefs, and convictions.

Comments You Like to Hear

Consider for a moment what kind of comments you like to hear after you make a presentation. You would probably be pleased to hear statements like these:

"Your argument was tightly focused."

Or, "You really had that one buttoned up."

Or, "Your presentation was tight, well prepared."

Or, "You really nailed that presentation."

Or, "You sure put forth a disciplined argument."

Those comments are businesslike. They feel OK.

You might be less comfortable with these:

"You sure put a lot of feeling into that presentation."

Or, "You took your listeners on an emotional roller coaster with that presentation."

These comments sound emotional. In business, most of us don't like to be thought of as emotional. Yet, if you are going to be successful in persuading an audience, you must expose your heart as well as your mind. That's hard for most of us to do. We feel vulnerable. And, indeed, we are.

Risks Involved

There are some risks involved here. If our goal is to persuade, we have to commit ourselves to a new world. It's a world where feelings come to the forefront. To be successful in persuading or motivating an audience, you must believe. And you must show that you believe. You need to be committed to the subject, committed to the audience, committed to the result. No trap door. No exit strategy. You are moving forward, and you want your listeners to get swept up by your enthusiasm for the subject or the project: "If you feel so strongly, it must be a good idea."

If You Do It Well

If you communicate your passion well, the audience will tune in to you. They won't look at you as just another speaker up there. They will identify with you in an almost evangelical way. They will even allow you a minor imperfection in your argument so long as you are perfect in your belief. They will overlook an occasional garbled syntax or even a grammatical mistake. But if your talk is void of emotion, it will miss its mark. The audience will sense a lost chord. They will see that your heart is not in it. They will feel hollowness, and all will be lost.

If that is not daunting enough, there is another thing the audience will be assessing as you speak - and that is your character. Here is a beautiful statement by Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the great minds our country has produced:

What you are thunders so

  that I cannot hear

    what you say.

We should keep that in mind whenever we speak to an audience, but especially when our purpose is to motivate. Dale Carnegie once said, "Don't be worried about getting hold of the subject; just be sure the subject gets hold of you."

The Power of Passion in Speech

The most important element in a talk to persuade is your belief in the "rightness" of the course you are asking the audience to take. The most persuasive evidence used in support of your belief is a human-interest story. A great story enables you to speak your mind and bare your soul.

Let me share a story with you: how a masterful talk to motivate and persuade saved the day.

A Big Sale - The Marine Corps

Back in the early days of Communisync, we were a subsidiary of J. Walter Thompson (JWT), and a small subsidiary with only ten employees. JWT was the world's largest advertising agency and proud of it. The United States Marine Corps was one of its accounts. We capitalized on this relationship to land our biggest sale ever, a three-year contract to train all Marine Corps recruiters in speaker skills.

We did this work at the Marine Corps recruiter school in San Diego. It's a six-week school that is run six times a year, covering all the subject matter the recruiter needs in order to carry out his or her responsibilities. Speaker training is taught for two days in each six-week cycle.

Nine hundred applicants for recruiter training were selected each year on a quota basis from each of six regions. They were staff sergeants and up. Requirements were three years of high school, four years of service time, and a recommendation from their commanding officer. The "tour" in this billet was two years and was considered a prestigious appointment.

The recruiter school was tough and demanding. Once a recruiter graduated, he or she was assigned to a recruiting office in any one of a hundred or more locations, usually in a highly populated area. Recruiters had to find prospects, excite them about a career in the Corps, and persuade them to sign up.

Where to find them? High schools, of course. How to excite them? By giving talks to the senior class. That's why speaker training was so important. The Marine Corps needed recruiters, and the recruiters needed speaker training.

A Budget Challenge

Seven months into our program, we received a letter from General Clark, the head of Marine Corps Recruiting, saying the Corps was eliminating speaker training for the last four months of the year. Just like that, they were going to cut one-third of our business! In the letter, we were also afforded the opportunity "to plead your case if you disagree with the actions we are taking."

Sure, we'd plead our case, but it was obviously perfunctory. The business was gone. It was a "budget thing" for the Marine Corps. Overall they had to cut millions of dollars. Virtually all suppliers were cut. We were part of it - a very small part, from their vantage point. Huge from ours.

Prior to the dreaded meeting, three of us met to discuss what we might present. The three were Charlie Wend, my partner, Jim McKirk, the account manager who was responsible for the account, and myself. We talked and argued and tried to work out a strategy to save the business.

Our dilemma was real. Charlie phrased it best: "How do you win an argument with the United States government when they have the money, the authority, and the Marine Corps on their side?"

Who Makes the Trip?

One thing we agreed on was that Jim McKirk and I would both make the trip. I would go because I was the president, and the letter asked for my presence. Jim would accompany me because he was the main person on the account and knew it inside out. He was our man who welcomed each group of 175 candidates to the San Diego recruiter school for training. In the course of eight months, he had addressed some six hundred recruiter school attendees and personally spent two days teaching most of them. In addition, he was our number-one instructor.

Jim was New Jersey born and about thirty-five years old. He had somehow never spent time in the military. His hair was a little too long for the business community, much less the Marine Corps. If you went to central casting to select a person to handle the Marine Corps account, you wouldn't pick Jim McKirk. But he was as smart as he could be and a magnificent instructor. And he personally cared.

The Meeting

Jim and I were ushered into a fairly large conference room. Sitting around the table were eleven marines, all in uniform.

Here was the assemblage:

On our side of the table were Jim McKirk and me. "That's thirteen people in one room for one rather perfunctory meeting", I thought.

We went through the normal small talk first. I shook hands with each of them. I always do that when I teach a Communisync program, and I thought it was probably a good idea here as well. One thing I've learned is that if an instructor shakes hands with a participant before the program, that person will more likely be an advocate rather than a problem. I'm sure politicians feel the same way.

There was another reason. Neither Jim nor I had ever shaken the hand of a general before. We were like anyone else. We were awed by their crisp uniforms, by the gold braid on their hats, and by the stars on their shoulders. And we were respectful of those officers who had achieved so much.

But we had a job to do. Our company was small, only ten people. The Marine Corps officers appeared intent on taking a large part of our company's income source away from us. At least that's the way we looked at it.

The Colonel Opens

One of the colonels opened the proceedings by outlining the framework in which this meeting was being held:

"The United States government has conducted a budget review, as it always does at this time of year, and found that it was running above budget. It is requiring all branches of the military to identify areas where proposed activity could be postponed or cancelled. It has asked the Marine Corps to "find" twenty-seven million dollars. The Communisync speaker training has been earmarked as a contributor to this saving. Our letter to you, Mr. Deley, explained all this. You have been offered the opportunity to respond to our letter of intent and give your perspective on our planned action."

I thought to myself, "This colonel is obviously a budget man. Jim and I don't have a chance to turn this around." Nonetheless, I began.

Our Presentation

I showed some statistics. We had trained 613 recruiter candidates thus far. The students rated each course in the five-week school. I presented the ratings. The numbers were awesome. I felt immense pride in what Jim and our other instructors had accomplished.

Overall rating of speaker training on a 5.0 scale


Rating of our instructors


Importance of speaker training


Average rating for all other subjects covered in the six-week recruiter school


Highest rating for any subject other than speaker training in the six-week school


The eleven Marine Corps officers around the table had to be impressed. But they didn't show it.

I read samples of the verbatim evaluations written by the students. They were overwhelmingly positive. They loved the training. They wanted more, not less. They said it was the best feature of recruiter school.

I read out loud some of the evaluations of speaker training written by the staff of the San Diego school. They taught all subject matter in the school except for speaker training, but there was no professional jealousy. They were equally positive and supportive of what we had done.

I ended by saying that we felt the impact of the six-week school would be diminished if the budget cut were maintained. I asked that the order be rescinded and that speaker training be reinstated. I sat down, knowing that I had gone through the motions but that my presentation wasn't going to change any minds.

The General Responds

General Clark reinforced that perspective when he said, "Thank you, John, for your informative review. We are pleased with the work you and your people have done for the Marine Corps and certainly hope that, in the future, you will have the opportunity to continue your work with the recruiter school in San Diego. I must emphasize the point that the action we are taking is brought about by budget constraints alone. It is not a reflection on you or your company."

Then he looked around the table and asked, "Does anyone else have something to say on this subject?" At that point I knew it was over. We had made a darn good case for our side, but they were on a mission to reduce expenditures and they had to remain firm.

The general waited a full ten seconds with no response. He rose to his feet, obviously intent on ending the meeting and said, "Very well then ... "

Jim McKirk Speaks

But he was interrupted by Jim McKirk, who stood up and said, "General Clark, if you will allow me, I do have something to say." General Clark nodded and sat back down. (I was surprised that Jim was speaking because we hadn't talked about this). Jim began:

I've worked with more than six hundred Marine Corps recruiter candidates in the past eight months. As you know, they each spend two days learning how to speak to an audience on behalf of the Marine Corps. They learn how to handle a sometimes-restless audience of high school seniors. They learn to be interesting, sometimes even entertaining. They learn how to present the Marine Corps as an exciting career with immense opportunity.

They also learn how to look the father of a seventeen-year-old in the eye and say, "The Marine Corps is an institution, larger than most of the major corporations in the country. The career opportunities for your son (or daughter) are just as varied. We will help your child discover what talent he has. We'll teach the skills that she needs. They'll learn a trade or an occupation. They will learn teamwork, self-discipline, loyalty to their fellow marines, love of country, and faithfulness to its ideals. It's a great life if he or she wants it and if he or she qualifies."

The recruiters have to learn to tell that story credibly. That's our job. We teach them to communicate the Marine Corps story, to tell it well, to tell it persuasively, to be better recruiters.

The Story

Jim continued:

But we do so much more. Let me tell you a story. I had one young lad in my class. His name was Steve, twenty-four years old, with four years in the Corps. Steve was a decorated war hero. He had a bull neck and a high and tight haircut. And he wore the uniform well, chest out, chin up. You just looked at him and you could tell he was proud to be a marine.

But he was afraid to stand and speak in front of the group. He trembled. He shook. The words were almost inaudible. I worked extra hard with Steve, pushing, cajoling, coaching him, through each of the eleven talks that he gave in the training. He had so much potential. And he got better, and better, and better.

At the end of the two days he came up to me and said,

"Sir, can I say something to you?"

I said, "Of course, Steve."

He said, "Sir, these have been the finest two days of my life."

He paused for a moment as though to gather his thoughts. "Before this school, I've always been terrified of an audience. I couldn't do it. I've been ashamed, but I felt helpless."

Steve finished by saying, "Today, I finally feel like a man. I thank you for that."

I shook his hand, and my eyes filled with tears. Top Teeter, a Master Gunnery Sergeant on the staff, was with us at the time, and he said, "Jim, you are not supposed to cry in front of marines." He was laughing as he said it, but he had tear marks on his face, too.

I looked at the eleven Marine Corps officers listening to Jim. They were rapt, still, hardly breathing. Jim went on:

I'm not apologizing for my tears. I had just witnessed a miracle. I had watched a twenty-four-year-old marine overcome a fear that had tied him in knots his entire life. I saw a decorated war hero become a better man, a better marine.

And that's what our speaker training is all about. It's about young men and women discovering themselves, discovering the potential and the power that resides in them. It's seeing a young boy become a man right before your eyes. It's seeing a United States Marine stand taller because she knows she can face any audience and handle herself well.

And that's the risk you have to weigh as you consider eliminating this training. If you take it away, how do you replace this life-defining experience? Where else can your recruiters get it? Where else can they go? They look to you to make the decisions that are best for the Marine Corps and best for them.

You have to save money, you've told us that. Your overall need is twenty-seven million dollars. And you are looking to save a small portion of it by canceling speaker training. I understand your need.

A Passionate Plea

Jim concluded with:

But I implore you to look for it where the damage is not so great. Don't save it where it hurts these young men and young women the most. Don't save money at the expense of their selfesteem. Don't take away what Steve called, "the two finest days of my life." Don't take away the training that gives them courage to do their jobs as recruiters.

So where do you find the money you are trying to save?

Jim asked this rhetorical question softly, as though he were talking to himself. Then he paused, looked at General Green, and said in steadily increasing volume:

Sell a tank.

Sell a tank.

Sell a tank!

Then he said his final sentence very softly:

But don't deprive these fine young men and women of the opportunity to become stronger, more confident, better marines than they were before.

Jim sat down. Everyone was sitting. There was only silence. Then General Green, the senior officer in the room, stood up and walked toward Jim and me. He was smiling. He had his hand out. Since I was the president of Communisync, I assumed he was reaching for me. So I put my hand out, but he walked right by me. It was Jim's hand he clasped, and he shook it like an old friend.

General Green Responds

Then he said in a strong voice, which could be heard by all:

"Jim, I am deeply moved by your presentation. What you have shared with us captures the true spirit and heritage of the Marine Corps.

"As an organization, we challenge our men and women to constantly reach for new levels of excellence. We are not satisfied with the commonplace. Our recruiting slogan says, ‘The Proud, The Few, The Marines.' We must never forget that the growth and development of our personnel is what makes the Corps the elite branch that it is.

"We will meet and discuss your presentation."

Then he turned to me and said, "John, you will hear from us within a week. The meeting is adjourned."

Jim and I kept our game faces on until we found an empty room. Then we hugged one another and said, "We've got a chance. Believe it or not, we've got a chance!"

The Results

On the following Monday we received a letter from General Clark reinstating the remainder of our speaker training schedule. I read the letter out loud to the entire office. We whooped and cheered. Since when did the United States government, or the United States Marine Corps, ever change its mind?

We analyzed what had happened. Facts and statistics had not done the job. Only Jim McKirk's passion could break through their wall of resistance. He persuaded them.

Is there a lesson in this experience? Yes, there is. Never underestimate the power of intensity, the power of a passionate appeal, the power of a presenter's total commitment to his cause - the power of a great story.

You may worry that you might overdo this, go to far, show too much passion. Are there such times? The answer is yes, but not when selling an idea or persuading a group. It is true that passion can work to your disadvantage when you are being critiqued or criticized. If you find yourself deliberately put on the defensive, then you are probably better off being cool and calculating in your demeanor.

But when you are trying to generate excitement inside your listeners, you had better pump up your own excitement so that they can tell you are holding nothing back. Here is another quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Every great movement in the annals of history is a triumph of enthusiasm." Passion and enthusiasm are closely related.

They contributed mightily to Jim McKirk's triumph. They will do the same for you - so long as you don't hold back.

Key Learnings for Delivering a Talk to Persuade



Westside Toastmasters on Meetup

Table of Contents, How To Present To Any Audience Resources Page
Previous Section, How To Present To Any Audience Next Section, How To Present To Any Audience