Managing Polarization in Public Consultation

angry crowd polarization 3At a number of conference presentations over the past few years, I have had the pleasure of introducing participants to the polarization model, a strategic tool that helps my clients manage polarization, and the real or perceived hostility that often accompanies it, during media interviews and all forms of public consultation.

“Polarization arises because of issues,” I explain. “And the dictionary defines an issue as an unresolved problem with the potential of escalating into a dispute.”

Theoretically, every response to any issue can be mapped along a spectrum that goes from openly hostile on one side to openly supportive on the other, with no opinion somewhere in the middle.

“When someone takes issue with a perspective, especially during public consultation, they are making statements or asking questions that feel emotionally charged,” I outline during these sessions. “What’s the natural instinct of the person on the receiving end?”

Instinctively, the person answering attempts to change the opinion of the person expressing the opposing opinion. The goal is to bring that person, willingly or unwillingly, to the supportive side of the spectrum.

This can lead to a tug-of-war. When that happens, nothing gets resolved. No opinions are changed.

Whether opposed or supportive (and there are often many more opposed than supportive), everyone walks out of the meeting not having changed their opinion. Worse yet, they may move away from the logical toward the emotional end of the spectrum.

This is polarization.

media training polarization model

However, research shows that the further you go from the middle to the outer edges on each side of the spectrum, the more you go from a logical to an emotional perspective.

There are only three opinions about any issue: positive, negative, and none. And there are only three things you can do with these opinions.

You can reinforce a positive opinion. You can neutralize a negative opinion—not necessarily change it but neutralize it. Or you can form a latent or unformed position.

When issues arise, there is little or no need to form opinions; the issue has taken care of that task. Issues formulate opinions. To manage polarization effectively, therefore, two things need to happen. First, the organization’s perspective needs to be reasonable, rational, ethical and supportable. If it is, it’s defensible.

Second, the organization can best defend its perspective by answering questions about it, not reacting to statements or sending even more information to the audience in the hope that somehow they’ll overcome their emotional anxiety and understand what is attempting to be done.

If someone makes a statement that seems to drag the discussion to the left side of the spectrum, the receiver of that statement has two choices. He or she can politely ask the person to ask a question, or he or she can turn the statement into one or more questions, and ask and answer them succinctly.

And when it comes to questions, the more the merrier. This means that the person answering questions should be clear and concise in doing so. Every question asked should be answered in ten words or less.

“I actually believe most questions can be answered in ten words or less,” I explained during the session. “Answer the question and stop talking,” I explain. “If there’s even the remotest hint of polarization in the room, you won’t have to wait long for another question.”

Supports Transparency
Clear and concise answers to questions actually support the concept of transparency, which is important to any form of public consultation, essential to building trust, and increasingly critical in a wired world where everyone with a smartphone can feed into traditional and social media. By definition, consultation means listening, and I’ve long believed that the best way to demonstrate listening skills is to answer questions clearly and concisely.

“You can’t answer someone’s question effectively if you’re not actually listening,” I explain to participants. “But, more importantly, a working definition of transparency is ‘ask me anything, I have nothing to hide.’

“In a tense environment, answering questions enables the organization to demonstrate transparency, which allows those who have an opposing opinion, but a logical perspective, make their own minds up about what the organization is attempting to achieve.”

If done effectively, this approach can be effective to the point that those who came in with an opposed but logical perspective may very well change their opinions, if for no other reason than they become disillusioned with those who are opposed and emotional.

All that’s needed is defensible logic and a desire to have others explore that logic by getting as many questions as possible answered clearly and concisely.

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Zoom + PowerPoint = Hell on Earth

bored woman leaning head on hands
Doesn’t this article by @Geoffrey James at Inc. simply scream “TWENTY-TWENTY?” But this version of “Hell on Earth” has been going on since acetate film met laser printers, and bullet points became part of presentation vernacular.

The equation isn’t created by Zoom or PowerPoint or Keynote or Skype or Google Slides or Google Meets. It could more appropriately be written as “Reading + Listening = Hell on Earth.” Mr. James’ version of Hell on Earth is created by anyone asking an audience to read and listen at the same time.

I’d wager money that there’s both correlation and causation between the number of slides, the amount of information on those slides, and Zoom fatigue. As written information increases, fatigue undoubtedly rises. Why? Working memory is overloaded.

And it’s counterproductive. The research is 100% clear. Because the act of doing so overloads working memory, those who attempt to read and listen at the same time understand and retain less than those who simply read. Or those who simply listen.

Anyone wishing to reduce “Hell on Earth,” needs to separate the written word from the spoken. It is the one true path to improving presentations and reducing boredom worldwide.

Read the article.

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The fundamental skill of answering questions effectively

After more than 25 years of examining the concept and teaching it successfully, I am completely convinced that the most important thing we can teach presenters and spokespeople alike is to pause, answer the question, and stop talking.

In fact, it’s the most important thing we can teach each other because, in that same period of time, I have come to the conclusion that the skill of answering questions is perhaps the least-developed skill in human interpersonal communication. There are many reasons for learning to pause-answer-stop.

First of all, it offers protection during media interviews and hostile exchanges during all forms of presentations, when being quoted out of context or having words twisted is an issue.

If you've ever given evidence at a trial or examination for discovery — and you were coached by a lawyer prior to giving that evidence — you were undoubtedly told to pause and think about the question asked prior to ever opening your mouth. You were then told to answer the question asked and that question only. Then you were told to stop talking. (Although a lawyer may tell you to "shut up," the net result is exactly the same.)

PAS image green inside
Does your legal counsel tell you to pause-answer-stop because he or she wants you to reduce or eliminate your credibility as a witness? No, the lawyer wants you to protect yourself and protect your credibility.

Does the lawyer want you to pause-answer-stop so that you can put the case or organization at risk, which will then translate into increased billable hours? No. Although that's a bit tougher to answer (especially the part about more billable hours), the lawyer tells you to pause-answer-stop so you can protect the organization.

If pause-answer-stop offers protection in a court of law, wouldn't it offer similar protection in a court of public opinion when someone is answering questions from a print journalist, or when a presenter is answering questions from a hostile community group, a semi-hostile management team, or a board of directors?

It can. And it does. If you wish to reduce the risk of being quoted out of context by anyone, the simplest solution is to reduce the context. Stop talking.

Communicate More Effectively


But beyond that, pause-answer-stop enables someone to communicate more effectively. By asking more questions, the person or people receiving the information can better educate themselves about the topic in question to create better understanding.

Some years ago, we decided to put ceramic tile in our entranceway and kitchen. We were undecided about whether to do the job ourselves or to hire a contractor.

One evening, I went to my local Home Depot to do some research. I had the good fortune of encountering a very confident young man who had obviously installed a lot of ceramic tile. How did I know he was confident? He did not feel compelled to talk endlessly whenever I asked him a question.

In fact, he simply answered each question and stopped talking, waiting patiently for the next question.

In the 15 or 20 minutes that we chatted, I easily asked more than 100 questions. My son was with me and, as we were walking out of the store he remarked: "Dad, that was amazing. I can't believe how much I learned. I know exactly how to install tiles and what needs to be done. You asked great questions."

Actually, I didn't ask great questions. I was simply given the opportunity to ask a lot of questions -- which I would never have gotten if the person answering did not pause-answer-stop.

We ended up hiring someone to install the tiles, so some could argue that he lost a sale and didn't achieve his organization's objectives. However, that's short-sighted. The reason? Based on that experience, this local Home Depot is my first stop whenever I'm even thinking about any kind of improvement to our home. I don't know who's coaching them, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the ability of a number of their staff to answer questions clearly, concisely and effectively.

The same applies to other situations. Want a reporter to trust you? Want the management team or board of directors to trust that you'll deliver? Want to be more transparent? Teach yourself the same simple tactic.

Pause. Answer the question asked and only the question asked. Stop talking.


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PowerPoint Is Worse Than Useless. (Please, for the sake of all humanity, let that sink in!)

four young people bored at table
This author cites an article from Inc. magazine that said the “audience will be just as happy with your presentation if you do it without your slides.”

Actually, the research is clear. If happiness is measured by what they understand and retain, the audience will be happier if there are no slides.

Read the article.


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Is your audience leaning in to listen?

Or are they tuning out to text?


man texting tight
Interesting question, isn’t it? But in today’s world, it’s the first question that needs to be asked every time you deliver a presentation to others.

As a presentation skills resource, One Bucket at a Time is designed to provide the tools, skills and confidence you need to have your audiences leaning in to listen every time you deliver a presentation.

You’ll learn how to put the audience first. You’ll gain insight into structuring a conversation—not another boring presentation—that provides value to the audience while furthering your business objectives.

You'll learn to use visual aids effectively. Every visual you use will add to the success of your presentation, not distract (and therefore detract) from it.

You'll apply principles of face-to-face communication to all presentations—whether one-on-one or groups. Your communication skills will improve in virtually all aspects of your professional and personal life.

And you'll gain insight into answering questions clearly, concisely and effectively. This will enhance audience engagement, understanding and buy-in—and have them leaning in for more.

If you're interested in communicating effectively—in acquiring the skills to improve every presentation you'll deliver for the rest of your life—One Bucket at a Time is the perfect resource to help you.

One Bucket at a Time is available from Amazon, Kindle and Apple Books.

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How presenters can best influence audiences

Every presenter’s goal is that their information is remembered, used, or applied in some way. But how can presenters change memories? How can they access the long-term memory of their audience?
Silhouette with question marks and lightbulbs inside

An interesting article from the
Harvard Business Review entitled “Getting an Audience to Remember Your Presentation,” by Art Markman of the University of Texas, states that the purpose of presentations is to influence the explicit memory of the audience. Markman argues that, for presentations to have high impact, speakers need to be aware of how information gets into memory.

Markman identifies three factors than can be used to improve what people remember. The first is to follow the right sequence.

Information presented at the beginning and end of a talk is always best remembered, he says. This is why it’s critical to state the call to action up front. The audience should be encouraged to either apply the information or take action on it, and this should be clearly stated at the beginning of every business presentation.

It's important to set the tone for the sequence. According to Markman, “many speakers open their talks with an anecdote that is engaging, but only tangentially relevant to the topic of the presentation. The audience may easily recall this anecdote later, but it won’t help them to learn what they really needed to know.”

Opening with jokes or anecdotes that distract from the main topic is always risky. Do you want the audience to remember your jokes or how to apply or take action on your information?

Markman’s second factor is to draw connections. To make his point, Markman uses a peanut analogy: “If you take peanuts out one at a time, you get three peanuts when you reach into the bowl three times. But, if you pour caramel over the peanuts, then when you pull one out, you get a whole cluster. After you draw from the bowl three times, you may have gotten almost all of the peanuts out.”

He states that memory works the same way and “making connections among the key points in your talk helps pour caramel over the peanuts in memory and increases the amount that people remember from what you present.”

The third factor is to make the audience work. Markman states that presentations must “provide opportunities for audiences to think for themselves.” The more the audience thinks about the ideas in the presentation, the greater the likelihood they will remember those ideas later. It is important to control when the audience thinks and what they think about. As anyone who as attended one of my workshops or presentations know, pausing is essential. Pausing before you speak allows you to formulate the idea in your mind before articulating it. Pausing after each idea allows the audience time to think about and absorb your information, one idea at a time.

One of the most effective ways to influence memory is through conversational delivery. The best presentations emulate good conversations—whether someone is presenting to an audience of one or one thousand.

Think of the best presentations you have attended. What made the presenter memorable? It is the feeling that the presenter is speaking to us individually, even if we are in a room with a thousand other people. It is the feeling that they are having the same conversation with a group of people that they would have one-on-one.

This is how presenters achieve their business and communication outcomes. And, to paraphrase Professor Markman, this is how they change memories.

sweller meme 2.001


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