The subtle art of not losing your audience

Updated: Nov 2, 2018

There is a wonderful quote often attributed to John F Kennedy. It is:

The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.

Now, there’s some debate about whether he really said this or not. If he did, or didn’t, is not really important. What’s important is that it isn’t necessarily true anyway. A person is allowed to give a presentation that simply entertains or informs. A best man’s speech can simply entertain. A eulogy can honour someone who has passed away.

Every speech doesn’t need to be a call to end the arm’s race or halt global warming.

Having said that…

If you do want to change the minds of your audience, then I have two techniques that you may find useful. The first you may want to use. The second I strongly advise you to use. The first is…


What is procatalepsis? I’m glad you asked! It’s a speaking device where a speaker raises an objection to their own argument – and then answers it. The idea is to deal with counter-arguments before your opposition can raise them.

Here’s an example from President Obama in 2007:

It’s about the meaning of hope. Some of my opponents appear scornful of the word; they think it speaks of naivety, passivity, and wishful thinking.

But that’s not what hope is. Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task before us or the road blocks that stand in our path. Yes, the lobbyists will fight us. Yes, the Republican attack dogs will go after us. Yes, the problems of poverty and climate change and failing schools will resist easy repair. I know. I’ve been on the streets. I’ve been in the courts. I’ve watched legislation die…

And here’s another from Frederick Douglass in 1846:

I may be asked, why I am so anxious to bring this subject before the British public—why I do not confine my efforts to the United States? My answer is, first, that slavery is the common enemy of mankind, and all mankind should be made acquainted with its abominable character. My next answer is, that the slave is a man, and, as such, is entitled to your sympathy as a brother. All the feelings, all the susceptibilities, all the capacities, which you have, he has. He is a part of the human family.

The technique of procatalepsis should be used earlier rather than later in your speech. What’s that old cowboy saying? Head them off at the pass?

The second technique is one I highly recommend to anyone wanting to motivate the audience. It’s the call to action.

What is a call to action?

It’s exactly that – a call to the audience to change their thinking or modify their behaviour in some way. But if you want someone to modify their thinking, you need to prime them for the change. To do this, you must first appeal to the heart.

Captive audience on Swanston Melbourne Victoria

A call to the heart

It’s been said that people buy with their emotions and justify their decisions with logic. We see this in advertising all the time. People see a bottle of perfume that’s being promoted by Britney Spears. The reason they give for purchasing it is that they like the smell of the perfume, but the real reason is that they think they’ll be like Britney if they buy the perfume.

Does Britney know anything about perfume?

Somehow I doubt it.

Film stars promote everything from sunglasses to cars. Does George Clooney know anything about sunglasses? Does Tom Cruise know anything about cars? Advertisers know that our emotions command us. The news media knows this too. They know that people sit up and take notice when they hear about a disaster or tragedy. Then after they’ve put us through an emotional wringer, they’ll tell us about the cat that was saved after being stuck in the drain.

We are emotional creatures, and we need to engage people’s emotions before making our call to action.

When do we make our call to action?

It should be after we’ve emotionally engaged the audience. Typically it’s in the last third or quarter of the speech.

One way to structure a speech is by dividing it into three parts – the first part is an appeal to emotion, the second is to logic (with information that backs up part one), and the third is the call to action.

The call to action can’t be just one line. It needs to be at least a paragraph or two that drives the point home.


One way of doing it is with this two step process:

  1. Include a sentence that has the word ‘you’ or ‘your’ in it.

  2. Include a clear benefit of taking the action.

Here’s a few examples with the benefits highlighted:

  • The same must be true for you. We all like to save money. Joining now will save you money…

  • Your time is valuable. For only fifty dollars you’ll have access to the complete collection…

  • We all want to make a difference in the world. By volunteering for an hour a week, you’ll be helping homeless people to get off the streets and restart their lives…

Your goal may not be to change the world, but it may be to change the minds of your audience about some kind of important issue. Appeal to their hearts. Use logic to back up your appeal. Introduce a call to action to modify their behavior or thinking.

And keep all this in mind when you next buy perfume!

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