How to Move Your Audience

Can you think of the last time you were persuaded? As presenters, we need to get curious about what produces change in people. If we don’t know what motivates an audience, we can’t possibly move them.

The father of human motivation is Abraham Maslow. You probably studied his hierarchy of needs in school. From his theory of motivation came two different forms of persuasive appeals: deficiency and abundancy. First, it’s important to note that even though these words hold very different connotative meanings, deficiency motivation isn’t worse and abundancy isn’t better; they are just two different types of persuasive appeals that can be used in different situations. So let’s examine them further.

Deficiency Motivation
Deficiency motivation is any persuasive appeal that seeks to help the audience avoid discomfort or danger or disruption. They are often fear-based appeals. Home security companies use these frequently in their marketing campaigns when they show someone breaking into a house. They try to move us to purchase something that will protect us from harm, appealing to our need for safety. You might also see deficiency motivation at work when a coach makes players run laps or do push-ups for poor performance. The need to avoid that unpleasant experience will motive the players to perform better the next time. These types of appeals aim to appease the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, those concerned with biological, safety, social, and esteem needs. When they are used correctly, they can motivate an audience to change.

Abundancy Motivation
Abundancy motivation, on the other hand, appeals to our human desire to grow and achieve and learn. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the very top of the pyramid is self-actualization. Abundancy motivation is aimed at showing your audience how your persuasive message can help them achieve that.

A Harvard study on motivation in the workplace noted that the key indicator of motivation comes down to one word: progress. In fact, researchers found that on 76% of their best days, employees mentioned progress. So while fear-based appeals, punishment, or incentives might work in some cases, studies show that when we can help people become self-actualized, when they see that they are making progress, they are motivated to change.

Which One Should You Use?
The simple answer is both. Both forms of persuasive appeals seek to help the audience envision what could be. Deficiency motivation moves us away from something we want to avoid and abundancy moving us toward something we desire. So if you are selling a product to clients in a pitch, you might talk a little bit about the harm that could come from not using your product (deficiency motivation) and also help the audience envision how your product can lead them to progress and growth (abundancy motivation).

It’s important to note the distinction between which type of appeal we are more comfortable with, and which type of appeal actually moves us. Sure, abundancy motivation might give us the warm fuzzies, but will it actually change our status quo? It’s best to have a combination of the two in order to lead to actual change. In addition, it’s important to know that different audience members will respond to different types of appeals. After 40 to 50 years of behavioral science research, Daniel Pink’s findings resulted in the knowledge that “human beings, by the nature of their being human beings, are a mix of drives.” The best presenters are those who understand those drives and who make calculated appeals to meet them.

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