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Politics: Where beliefs trump good presentation skills

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I really like to watch State of the Union addresses. Not so much because of my politics, but because of what I do for a living.  As an executive presentation coach, the fodder for commentary is endless.

[I would normally ask readers at this point to set aside their particular political perspective for the greater lessons to be learned here – but you see, that’s part of the problem.]

I remember years back I was speaking to a group in California and used an image of then Secretary of State Colin Powell and the visual aids he masterfully used in 2003 in front of the United Nations to make his case for WMDs in Iraq.

But as compelling (I thought) of an object lesson it was, there was one gal about two rows back who began to instantly seethe. At first it was a nervous fidget in her seat. It soon progressed to her turning beet red quickly followed by a scowl that could melt metal.

I obviously hit a nerve.

Unfortunately, she never heard a word I said that day. Too bad.  I had no political agenda.  As a matter of fact, I used examples from both sides of the aisle but it didn’t seem to matter.

Fast forward to President Obama’s SOTU address last night.  I think most people in the room would acknowledge, at some level, he is a gifted orator. The use of pause.  Tactical pacing changes.  Eyes always working the room as he seamlessly uses his teleprompter. His ability to salt humor to soften emotion.

From time to time, we have presidents who have perfected the art more than others, but there were some in the room who never heard a word.  All his mastery of the communication arts – totally ineffectual with so many.

Belief systems will always trump great communication skills.

I hate to admit this because I spend my entire life coaching those skills but it’s true and the research is well-established.

In a 2008 joint study with Duke University & Georgia State University, researchers set out to understand how effective facts are at swaying beliefs.  As a study context, they focused on documented misconceptions that prevail today around certain political views.  Could blatantly false or unsubstantiated beliefs be corrected with an objective communication of the actual truth?

Let me net out for you what the research revealed…

  • All information is filtered through an audiences existing belief system.
  • When individuals believe something very strongly, the exposure to contradictory information (even if true) can actually reinforce the existing (incorrect) belief system.
  • People will go to great lengths to avoid the cognitive dissonance created when their beliefs don’t seem to jive with the facts.


Bottom line. Where beliefs are intense, minds are pretty much made up.

So as we present our ideas to others, our best opportunity to influence is probably not with those who extremely oppose our ideas – but with those who are somewhat undecided.

But more importantly, maybe our effectiveness as communicators is really more about all the things that build up to that moment. How do we work on building trust and healthy consensus?  Do we consider others and their ideas?   How do we manage inevitable conflict?

Perhaps that’s what’s wrong with politics here in America. We spend too much time getting the oratory just right when the relationships are all wrong.  It doesn’t work in DC. and it will never work for us either.