Creating messages that stick

There are few people who are truly confident in their ability to present a message and know that it will influence their audience with the desired outcome. There’s an art to having the power to influence. Story by Michelle Bowden.

Have you ever wanted to get endorsement for your idea from your manager or sell a product or service to your client? Or perhaps you have found yourself needing to resolve a conflict with a client or service provider? Do you ever find yourself needing to get past a gatekeeper before you can interact with the right person?

To get what you want in life you have to get other peopleto give it to you. Whether you are a mother, neighbour, brother, aunty, customer, leader or Property Manager it’s in your interest to learn how to influence people.

Influence is all about moving someone from Point A to Point B and it’s a learnt set of skills that anyone can master. When we present at work our purpose is generally to influence people or to get them to change their behaviour in some way.

Let me ask you, how do you normally go about structuring a presentation? In the past have you designed your presentations by going to PowerPoint and either collating existing slides, or creating a few new ones and then working out what to say about them? Or perhaps you have used the, ‘introduction, aim, credentials, body one, body two, body three, summary, conclusion’ model, which is commonly taught in schools and universities. Some people use a variety of mind mapping techniques such as the ‘fishbone’. And still other people just ‘wing it’ and hope their charisma will do the work for them! Do any of these sound familiar?

The thing about these three approaches is that they are what we call ‘presenter-focused’ models. They tend to be content driven. Whether you are presenting to one person, or many people, if you are keen to influence your audience in your presentation, what you need is an audience-focused model that focuses on the different needs and expectations of the different people in your audience.

You see, individuals take in information differently, learn differently, and form opinions differently. As a result, individual members of your audience will be silently preoccupied by the different agendas and expectations they have of you. These agendas and expectations lead them to formulate certain questions that they are expecting you to address in your presentation. I recommend you use a learning styles model that guarantees you will achieve more buy-in and cater for the diverse needs of your audience.

An audience focused model

The model that I suggest you might like to use when structuring your presentations was developed by Bernice McCarthy. McCarthy drew on the various theories of adult learning proposed by psychologists and theorists such as Jung and Kolb. She created an instructional system that addresses the intrinsic needs of all audience types. Bernice McCarthy called her model the 4Mat System. 4Mat recognises that individuals need to have four key questions answered.

In some cases, by virtue of their personality and preferred learning style, audience members have a preference for one of these four questions over the others. In order to be convinced by your argument they will need to have their primary question answered. This is not to say, however, that they will not be interested in other questions too. It follows then that in order to capture the ‘hearts and minds’ of all audience members you will need to be sure that your presentation answers all four questions in a given order.

There are 4 key questions to address in this audience focused model.

1. Why The audience member has a need to clarify the context and rationale.
2. What? The audience member has a need to identify the detail of what is to be learnt.
3. How? The audience member has a need to explore how to use and apply what is learnt.
4. What if?/What else? This is where the audience member needs to outline the alternatives for the new information to modify, adapt and create new contexts.

So how do I use the four questions in my presentation?

The question Why? is asked by most audience members at the beginning of presentations or meetings. When you answer Why? For your audience, you are assisting your audience to gain personal meaning and connect new information with personal experience. It helps your audience to establish the information’s usefulness in their life. You are addressing questions like: ‘Why should I listen?’, ‘What’s in it for me?’, ‘What’s the relevance of this subject to me at work and in my life?’

When you answer the Why? question early in your presentation, people will be engaged by you, and will be more motivated and inspired to listen.

The question What? is answered next to deepen your audience members’ understanding of concepts and processes. This is where you deliver the facts, figures, data, information and statistics in your presentation. It’s also where you must remember to deliver your credentials, and the credibility behind your information. You would answer questions at this point for your audience such as, ‘What do I know about this?’, ‘What analysis or research has been conducted to come to this conclusion?’, ‘What are the facts of the matter?’

The question How? is what you need to answer after you have answered What? This is where you explain the steps and the application of the content you have covered in the What? section of your presentation. You would specifically answer questions like, ‘How will we manage your property?’, ‘How do you engage us?’, ‘How will we implement it?’, ‘How will you use it?’, ‘How can you apply it?’ and ‘How will we make this happen?’

The questions What if? and What else? are the final questions you should answer in your presentations. This is where you add your extra thoughts and information. It is where you tie up all the loose ends and remind your audience about your key messages. It’s also where you give the audience a chance to explore some of their questions in a question and answer session, and close for action. Take the opportunity in this section to look outside the square for possibilities by answering questions such as, ‘What if we did it this way instead?’, ‘What else can we do to maximise the return on investment?’, ‘What if XYZ happens, then what will we do?’

The presenter who can move effortlessly through the various questions is the presenter who will elegantly address the needs of their entire audience and in turn influence them to do what they want.

You really can use the four questions from the 4Mat System in so many situations. For example: to influence your child to tidy their room, to convince a contractor to lower their price, in the writing of a business proposal, or to craft an e-mail to a client or provider. And by the way, I firmly believe that the more you use it in your home life, the easier you will find using the four questions when necessary at work.

Think of a communication or presentation you have coming up in the next few weeks. Have a practice at delivering your message using the Why? What? How? and What else?/What else? questions. Notice how thorough this type of presentation is. I really like this audience focused model and I recommend you use it when communicating in business.

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Michelle Bowden

Michelle Bowden is Australia's expert on presenting persuasively in business. She's a best-selling, internationally published author of How to Present: the ultimate guide to presenting your ideas and influencing people using techniques that actually work. For more information visit