presentations and identity variables

What’s an identity variable?

male peacock presenting to female

I self-identify as male. I self-identify as married. An identity variable is something that is you use to build your self image. If I looked in the mirror and found that instead of a six-feet-tall white man I could see a five foot tall woman I’d be very, very confused!

Personal confession – I thought the mirror was just reflecting the light badly when I first saw grey hairs! 馃槈

What are they important in presentations?

Presentations are supposed to change something. At the very list they’re supposed to change people’s levels of understanding and knowledge, but better presentations change what audiences do and what they think. And here’s the rub…

… if your presentation comes up against someone’s identity variable something has to give.

For example, if a key decision-maker in your audience (see about targeting within audiences) has an identity variable as a great leader and your presentation illustrates that he (or she!) is actually a bloody awful leader you’ve got two problems. The first is the usual one of just convincing people that you’re right and they’re wrong.

The second is that you’re doing that against a background of “if you’re right, everything they thought they knew about themselves is wrong”. Go back to the first paragraphs of this post… if I saw something different in the mirror am I more likely to say:

  • oh, I’m actually a five feet tall woman after all. The previous 57 years of my life have been lived under a delusion!
shocked at the image the mirror presents me with! :)


  • the mirror is wrong!

Not a hard choice really – and yet that’s what your presentation is up against! Here’s my take on it… when your presentation hits an identity variable it’s not going to win. Your best bet is to do something else instead.

Why are the audience reaction so strong? How would you feel if your house was being threatened? That’s how our brains react – we can respond to this kind of identity-level / emotional threat in the same sort of way as if we’re physically threatened. (Side note: this explains a great deal of why it’s very difficult to have a conversation that changes someone’s mind if there self-identity is built into their politics, such as the right to carry a gun in the US, for example, or for the UK to leave or not leave, the EU.)

An example from one of my own presentations

A couple of years ago I made a presentation to a branch of my own professional body for speakers (the PSA) about how to make better presentations. In passing I mentioned that the VAK model of how people learn was nonsense (there’s lots more research, that’s just the one I could remember this morning before my coffee 馃檪 ). Immediately I saw someone about four rows from the front go into what any presenter will recognise as the “I want you to die pose”. You know the one – the body language of some who wants you, the presenter, to die… or at least suffer an immediate and incapacitating bout of vertigo so you have to stop speaking.

When one of my team spoke to her in the break afterwards we found that she ran a company selling VAK tests.

Given what I’d just said she pretty much had two options

  1. You’re right Simon, I see it now. Everything I’ve done for the last 20 years in business has been tosh. I’ll close down my business and see if I can give the money back;
  2. La-la-la-la, I can’t hear you! Your data are wrong! I don’t believe you!

Obviously she opted for the second response.

What’s the wrong response in your presentation when that happens?

Frankly, the wrong response is what I did.

I’m confident of my research and therefore of my material. I’m a research scientist by training and I can’t bring myself to go in front of an audience and talk about stuff unless I’m certain of what I’m saying. Really certain. And that means that when someone in the audience metaphorically sticks their fingers in their ears I take it personally. I know I’m right. And by proving to them that they’re wrong I’m helping them. Honest.

But they don’t see it like that.

So my response to her “Die please” body language was to focus on her. I threw more and more of the facts and the presentation in her direction. All of it was, obviously wasted – but it was worse than wasted because in concentrating on her I risked alienating other people in the audience. I risked losing both

  • people who were her close friends and recognised the confrontation; and
  • people who were on the cusp of being convinced by me but who I then ignored.

Far better would be for me, as the presenter, to internally recognise that and not worry about that individual member of the audience. (Don’t panic it went well in the end! See this testimonial 馃檪 )

So what can presenters do about identity variables?

Like all things, preparation helps. When you’ve got your presentation sorted out – or even partially sorted out – and ask yourself, honestly, if it’s the kind of presentation that’s going to hit someone in their IV. Just the simple act of asking a few questions will give you clues about what to do:

  1. is my presentation going to change something for someone (important)?
  2. who, in particular is going to be in the audience that might react?
  3. what can I do to reach out to them before the presentation and get them on board?
  4. should I consider getting their input on the presentation before-hand or even part of the presentation?
  5. is there a way I can mitigate the ‘challenge’ of the presentation by presenting the information in a different way?

Question 1 is pretty straight-forward, I think. So is question two but it might need you to do some serious thinking and perhaps even some social media stalking 馃檪 Reading a few linked in posts, for example, might give you some clues.

Questions three and four are more powerful than they look. It’s a well known negotiation tactic or influencing skill tool to get your opponent on side before the confrontation. It might not be worth it for small presentations and so on but for significant ones you might want to have a chat over coffee with the words “Can I pick your brains? We need the company to do XYZ and I know that’s going to be hard for you in particular so I was wondering if you’d got ideas about how to make it…”. People like to be asked to help and if you’re careful you can get your identity-variable-suffering-in-the-audience as an ally!

Question five takes a little imagination. You might consider things like swapping your company data for a hypothetical, or using the case study of a different company for whom things didn’t work out. You might want to think about using more humorous stories to keep the feeling of the meeting light. You might want to make historical references – it’s hard to be reasonably offended by things that happened to the ancient greeks! 馃槈

… and if what happened to them is the perfect analogy for what’s happening to your organisation, now, it might sidestep your IV problem nicely!

The key is to do whatever you can to frame the problem as an outside issue, and avoid triggering the fight or flight reflex that comes along when an identity variable is threatened. Try to frame your presentation as offering opportunities for ‘even better if’ rather than ‘this is what’s wrong’.

And if all else fails, do what I didn’t, and concentrate on the other members of your audience.

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