You need to rock the boat!

The Lifeboat Dilemma: A Metaphor for Immediate Action

Imagine being stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, waiting for rescue to arrive. Along with you are all the other passengers on the original ship that is now a mere decorative item for the ocean floor, and luckily everyone has survived. But you know that the rescue won’t arrive for another six hours and you realise your lifeboat is taking in water. At this point, it should be relatively easy to get people into action to stop the leak or at least start working towards emptying the water, right? With enough food and water on board, all you have to do is work diligently for the next several hours so that you step on the rescue boat with dry clothes. (And try not to rock the boat too much while you’re at that.) You don’t need much persuasion, you don’t have to deliver a compelling speech or show detailed charts to highlight the pros and cons of taking immediate action.

Several months after that ordeal in the ocean, you are back in your office, due to deliver a presentation to some key decision-makers. You’ll need their supportive decisions to get you closer to your goals. But do you think they would be easily convinced to take action?

When making a speech or delivering a presentation, I believe there is only one purpose: To convey your ideas to your listeners and get them to take an action. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. This action could be flashing their checkbooks to invest in your project, or adopting your recommendations for improving the workplace, or increasing your department’s marketing budget so that you will have more resources to meet your goals next quarter.

Rethinking the Concept of ‘Action’

But this ‘action’ of the presentation or the speech could also mean just deciding to think differently, or seeing things from a different perspective. The action that you seek in your speech does not have to be a tangible, visible move from your listeners; a mere consideration of your new perspective is also an action that you could be seeking — in fact, a very important one.

But how do you do that? Have you noticed how, most of the time, just conveying information alone is not sufficient to get people to change their behaviours or adopt new points of view? Just ask anyone who has all the information about the unhealthy effects of smoking, who wants to quit, but can’t. We need more than just data to make us want to consider changing our perspective, see things differently, and possibly take action in a new direction. And under these circumstances, one of the worst ways of trying to get people to take action would probably be doing things ‘the usual way’.

The Pitfalls of ‘The Usual Way’

I see and hear that repeated many times, especially in corporate communications where presentations are used: Take the previous deck, update the charts, replace the text and numbers with the new ones, hit save, and go present. Or, cram everything into a one-page executive summary with 9-pt text and expect that your audience will pay any semblance of attention to it. And the most prevalent counter-argument I receive when I advise people to make things differently is, that they want to stick to the usuals ways and they don’t want to ‘rock the boat’.

Quite naturally, the usual way of doing things will not result in any significance in the way people perceive you or your message. When they are already bombarded with all sorts of inputs and information from every corner of their busy lives, it will not allow you to stand out from the crowd and get your message across. Doing things the usual way will create usual results, which, 99% of the time will defeat the purpose of an in-person speech or presentation in the first place: If you’re not seeking to get people into action in new ways, just send an email with the updated slides and they will be appropriately informed.

But the purpose of a speech or a presentation goes way beyond that. So the next time you feel yourself inclined to stick to the usual ways, think about if they would serve your purpose well. They probably won’t. Instead, consider making a few changes to the ways you interact with the people listening to you. This could be anything from standing up to speak during a meeting where everyone else is fixated in their chairs, to slicing the executive summary slide into six more slides to delivering things one by one, in bite-size chunks. You do not have to reinvent the wheel and drastically change the way we communicate with each other, but any positive difference you’ll bring into the picture will help you get closer to your goals of being there and doing the speech in the first place. 

In order to stand out from the ordinary, you need to rock the boat. And no one in his or her right mind would criticise you for tweaking the ways you speak or present to them, given that the purpose of these changes is only to improve the quality of the communication they receive.