What do you do when audiences aren’t receptive to your speech? Why should you contextualize your ideas, and how should you do it?
It can be nerve-wracking standing in front of an audience that might not agree with your viewpoints. By contextualizing your main idea at the beginning of your presentation, you’ll have a better chance of winning them over to your side.
Keep reading to learn how to contextualize ideas, according to Amplify Your Influence by René Rodriguez.
The Art of Contextualizing
Rodriguez states that, before you present your main idea, you must know how to contextualize it. This ensures your audience views your main idea the way you want them to rather than through their personal contexts. We all typically view information through our personal context, which is based on our experiences, memories, and preconceptions, along with our present physical and emotional states. This context determines how receptive we are to new ideas, how likely we are to act on these ideas, and how we’ll react to them emotionally.
(Shortform note: Some experts use the concept of personal contexts in disciplines beyond communication. For example, occupational therapists use it to define a range of considerations that might affect a client’s ability to participate in their occupation. Along with our life experiences, some factors that might make up our personal context include our age, race or ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, and cultural identity.)
Your audience might have aversions or fears about your main idea that form part of their personal context. This can hinder their ability to receive your ideas and thus, your ability to change their behavior. When people feel unsure and unsafe, their hypothalamus (the part of the brain responsible for automatic functions such as digestion and breathing) activates, shutting down their ability to process new information.
(Shortform note: Some research supports Rodriguez’s assertion that the stress response we experience when feeling unsafe hinders our ability to absorb information. In addition to activating your hypothalamus, this state also affects the amygdala’s ability to send and receive input to and from the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that consciously directs our decisions and actions based on reflective thought. This means that when we’re in this state, our brains can’t turn sensory input into memory. Additionally, we’re no longer in control of our behavioral responses.)
Instead of letting this restrict you as a speaker, guide audience members’ perception of your main idea by creating context at the beginning of your communication. Specifically, addressing your audience members’ fears and concerns primes them to be open and receptive. For example, contextualize your main idea using pathos by telling a story that helps your audience members empathize with you.
(Shortform note: In The Pyramid Principle, Barbara Minto offers three steps for writing an introduction that contextualizes your main idea, as Rogriguez recommends. First, provide your audience with a familiar context—this helps them see that what you’ll be sharing is relevant to them, which will make them more receptive to your ideas. For instance, share a story (as Rogriguez proposes), but make sure it’s a story that’s relevant to their lives. (Introducing familiarity may also soothe any fears the audience has about your idea.) Then, pose a relevant question that will pique your audience member’s curiosity and make them want to keep listening. Finally, share your main idea as an answer to this question.)
Shortform Example: Contextualizing a Meditation Workshop
Say you’re facilitating a meditation workshop for a group of businesspeople. Your main idea is that meditation can be a valuable tool to manage work stress and create a healthy lifestyle, and your delivery of that idea includes a meditation exercise for the audience to participate in.
You sent a survey out before the workshop, so you already know some of your audience’s personal contexts surrounding meditation: Many of them wrote that they’ve either never tried it, or they’ve tried it and found it difficult. These personal contexts indicate some aversion or trepidation about meditation. Therefore, if you were to begin the workshop with your meditation exercise, the audience members would likely get little out of it. Their hypothalami would shut down the learning part of their brains, and they’d be unable to absorb any benefits from the exercise.
However, say you begin by addressing their concerns instead, thus changing their context. You start the workshop with some information about what meditation is and isn’t: It’s primarily about paying attention to the present moment so that anyone can do it, with no experience required. It’s an ongoing practice, so it’s okay if they don’t notice immediate effects the first few times they do it. To tap into the audience’s pathos, you might tell a personal story about how it’s helped you. Finally, you state that everyone’s experience is different, and the most important thing is to tune into themselves and acknowledge any feelings and sensations that arise.
By offering all of this context at the beginning of your presentation, you’ve covered the audience’s points of aversion toward the exercise. You’ve given them permission to experience whatever they experience and let go of their expectations. This will make them more receptive to your ideas and make it easier for you to change their behavior—meaning they’ll be more likely to try meditation again.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Amplify Your Influence summary:
- How you can help others reach their goals and improve their behavior
- How to use Aristotle's four rhetoric appeals to connect with an audience
- Tips on what to do before, during, and after a presentation