Some time ago, I worked as an instructional designer responsible for a large pharmaceutical company’s executive development curriculum for its sales division. In this position, I learned a valuable lesson about how not to gain buy-in from your audience.
Most of the employees from three different complexes of buildings were gathered to hear about the company’s new direction from our recently promoted vice president. Mind you, these complexes of buildings were spread out over miles, making the population equivalent to that of a small town. There were teams representing sales, marketing, training, manufacturing, and more. The crowd was so large that we couldn’t fit in the theater space where most of the CEO’s “State of the Business” presentations were made. Instead, we gathered in the newest building’s mammoth cafeteria. Hundreds of chairs were lined up in tight rows, but the crowd was so large that many people stood against the walls and outside the building, watching through windows and listening from speakers.
There was a sense of excitement, but also a lot of anxiety. You see, the company had been on a downturn for a few years, with major drugs being pulled from the market or coming off patent and a not very impressive pipeline. Over the last couple of years, we’d experienced layoffs around the world by the thousands. There hadn’t been layoffs in the training department, but it had been shrinking through attrition for several years. When someone would leave, that work would get distributed to the remaining staff. Our department had shrunk from 200 employees and five regional training centers to 50 employees and two training centers, with plans to shrink down to one training center. Four years after I started with the company, I was doing individually what six people had been doing when I got there. That burnt-out feeling was pervasive and real.
You can imagine that many gathered there were hoping to hear something inspirational and hopeful—a plan for better times to come for all of us who were toughing it out. And the VP, as he began speaking, promised some exciting news. Something that he was sure would rally the troops and get us marching in a new direction. He said that we were going to be “very excited” when we heard the new plan and direction for the company. He went on with his presentation for a while, talking about how the company was doing, various initiatives, and the like. Finally, it came time for the big reveal. We waited with bated breath.
“I’m very excited about this new vision for our company, and I know you will be too. Our new vision is to be the top pharmaceutical company in the world again! It is time to reclaim our spot as number one!”
“Yes, this will require sacrifice,” he continued. “We will have to buckle down and work even harder. Unfortunately, there will continue to be more rounds of layoffs. But we are confident we will get there. Number one pharmaceutical company in the world!”
“How about best company to work for?” some of us mumbled.
Instead of excitement, the VP got a smattering of dutiful applause. You could see on his face that the response wasn’t what he expected. Why weren’t we more excited?
You see, the VP fell into the trap that many of us do, especially in the corporate world. His vocabulary had been restricted to “us,” “we,” and the plural “you.” We are taught to think of things in terms of the team, division, and company. We lose focus on the fact that the company is made up of a bunch of individuals with individual wants and needs.
He had forgotten basic human nature. People love to be part of a greater vision, but they must see the personal benefits for themselves. They need the WIIFM, the “What’s In It For Me?” How does being the number one pharmaceutical company benefit me individually? What will I gain from that? (Aside from longer hours, more work and stress, and possibly getting laid off.) When trying to gain buy-in, you must be very clear on the benefits to the individuals.
When I came to Leadership Strategies last year as director of training services, I learned that for the a presentation’s opening to be effective, you must inform the audience of the presentation’s purpose and its expected outcome (what they will know and be able to do as a result of the presentation). You must excite the audience about the personal benefits to them.
The way to excite people is not to present some lofty goal and expect them to jump on board. The way to excite them is to explain the benefits to them as an individual. One way you can do this is by using “you” statements.
• “You will be able to…”
• “You will have more…”
• “Your team will be able to…”
• “This will be easier for you because…”
In fact, the “excite” part of an opening should contain the words “you” or “your” at least four times. The more the better. Let’s imagine you are trying to gain buy-in for a revamp of your company’s hiring process. Read the following two “excite statements,” and ask yourself which one would be more likely to appeal to you.
• If we are successful, we will walk away with a new hiring process that will help our organization get the right people hired and get them hired quickly.
• Today, you may have people on your staff who don’t have the skills or attitude you need. As a result, you work much harder to make up for what they aren’t doing. This is your opportunity to put strategies in place to ensure that you get the people you need to get the work done.
The second is a much better “excite” statement, isn’t it? Why? The first statement uses “we” and focuses on the organization. The second has seven instances of “you” and “your.” It recognizes and empathizes with your challenges and is all about how you directly will benefit.
Remember to carefully craft your excite statement for your next presentation or the next time you open a meeting or other type of session. This will help you to gain buy-in from your audience so that you will start with their focus and engagement, which will make you more successful in accomplishing your purpose for the meeting or session.
Going back to that day in the vast cafeteria, what were the personal benefits supposed to be for me when the company regained its number one position? I still don’t know. The VP never told us. By failing to do this, he had missed a crucial opportunity to connect the audience to the bigger goal and to gain buy-in. After all, everyone’s favorite radio station is WII-FM!
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