Facing a Skeptical Audience? Try This Unexpected Move.

Being influential can be challenging in-and-of-itself; being influential with a skeptical audience poses its own unique difficulties—not the least of which is our own emotional reality. Let’s be real: How do you feel when someone seems dubious or doubtful in the face of your brilliant ideas/solutions/products? I’d like to tell you that my natural curiosity and empathy rise to the occasion. But that would be a lie, because I pretty much always feel deflated or annoyed.

There’s something to be said for learning to celebrate others’ resistance. It is a sign of engagement after all. And as hard as it feels to be confronted by it, I’d choose it over their ambivalence seven days a week. Mindset work is fundamental prep work here (as it is with so many things related to trust building).

An Unexpected Move

When you anticipate a skeptical audience—and BTW, it’s safe to assume that most buyers start skeptical since we all love to buy and hate to be sold—there’s an unexpected way to open a conversation or presentation that’s unexpectedly effective. It’s simple, not easy. It requires that we do the opposite of what our baser instincts tell us to do (as it is with so many things related to trust building). I call it “putting your worst foot forward.”

Admittedly, there’s a little dramatic effect in my language choice. What I basically mean is choosing not to lead with all the things I was taught to lead with in my early days as an IT consultant: positivity, enthusiasm, and compelling justifications for whatever it is you’re selling. Instead, lead with what I’ll simply characterize as the “negative stuff,” like the downsides, cons, or challenges associated with your idea/product/service. Or even your own personal weaknesses, or the weaknesses of your organization.

Say what?

Making Sense of What Might Seem Crazy

There are ample reasons NOT to follow this advice. It’s risky. It could backfire. You could lose their confidence rather than build it. A negative tone might be set. You might call their attention to something negative they hadn’t thought of before. The list goes on. Plus, it just kinda feels weird.

All that said, if you’re open to a little additional perspective, I discovered something really interesting a couple of years ago that makes sense of my unconventional advice.

This unexpected way to open a presentation or conversation with a skeptical audience is unexpectedly due in large part to something called The Sarick Effect, and I learned about it in Adam Grant’s book Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World. The lesson offered by The Sarick Effect (named after social scientist Leslie Sarick) flies in the face of just about every piece of wisdom out there on how to be compelling and build others’ confidence in you—which is, of course, why I love it so much.

Long story short, The Sarick Effect suggests that when you’re speaking to a skeptical audience, doing what most of us have been taught to do—aiming to win their hearts and minds with confidence—actually backfires.

Why? Because skeptics naturally have their guards up and meeting their reserve with your optimism has the natural effect of raising their shields. Leading with “negative stuff,” on the other hand, has numerous curious results: (1) it’s disarming, (2) it creates allies by giving the doubting Thomases a problem to solve, (3) it makes you look smart, and (4) it actually builds your credibility.

The Magic of Humble Confidence

Let’s be clear: how you do this makes a difference. The magical mixture that I think of as “humble confidence” is key. Too much humility, and your fears of seeming weak come true. Stepping assuredly with your worst foot forward, on the other hand, actually does win hearts and minds.

Here’s the lesson in a nutshell: When you feel like you’re one down, your baser instincts will tell you to bring more swagger to the table. A wiser approach is doing the exact opposite.

As it is with so many things related to trust-building.


For more on this subject, including specific techniques to listen masterfully while your audience has their guard up, plus how and when to bring your perspectives into the exchange, check out the no-strings-attached webinar recording: “How to Influence a Skeptical Audience in Three Simple Steps.”


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  1. […] to the other one, which is Step 1: Put your “worst foot” forward. I wrote about it last week in this blog. Long story short, here I suggest you embrace key lessons from The Sarick Effect and therefore lead […]

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