Fathom co-founder, Kevin McRobb discusses the merits of ‘soft power’ and how you might use it to up your game when presenting your ideas at work.

Product launches, marketing campaigns, recruitment processes and elevator pitches each share this in common: all of them rely on getting your subjects round to your own way of thinking, or making them want what you want. Though some business goals can be achieved by pressure and coercion also known as ‘hard power  these are unlikely to win you many friends when pitching new ideas. In this post, we’re going to examine the value of its meeker (and infinitely more fun at parties) cousin, ‘soft power’.

Do Your Homework

In the information age, credibility is the most valuable commodity there is. This is why it’s so important to present both your proposal and yourself in the best possible light. Know your proposal upside-down and inside-out. Internalise that knowledge so that you are able to produce just about any fact about your proposal on demand.

Produce a budget estimate in advance. Even if there are unpredictable elements involved, it pays to have a ballpark figure at least. This shows your audience that you have scrutinised and believe in your proposal enough that you have thought several steps ahead of the initial meeting and will prove to be a useful partner further down the line.

Do not assume that you already know your listener’s point of view. Be prepared to encounter a variety of concerns and ideas, even within the same room. Listen to their words carefully and deduce their primary concern. How does your proposal solve that concern? This is your selling point.

If you can control it, choose the right time to make your pitch. Observe your listeners schedules. Are they going to be exhausted on Friday afternoon? Is Monday morning going to much better? I’ve noticed that the language students I work with tend to be best motivated in the middle of the week. Try to avoid the 3:00 p.m lull. Mid-morning on a Tuesday or Wednesday is an ideal time to engage with new ideas, although I caution that every company runs on its own clock and every individual of course is unique.

Sell Benefits, Not Features

Examine the strategic goals of the board and establish how your proposal helps them to achieve one, or ideally more than one of those goals. Make it easy for them to comprehend: show your audience not only how your proposal works, but also how it enables them to meet their objectives.

Where possible, you should also quantify those benefits. Don’t simply say that your proposal will ‘save money’. Explain to them exactly how much you envisage that saving to be. ‘We can reduce our website costs by 30% if we hire an in-house web developer’ is much more convincing than ‘we can save money by hiring an in-house web developer,’.

Keep it Short and Simple

Condense your entire pitch down into three sentences. Write it in a way that you can explain within no more than thirty seconds. Define the problem, explain how your proposal solves it, and demonstrate how solving that problem will benefit your listeners. Taking this approach enables you to trim the fat from your presentation, allowing your audience to focus on the core message, and nothing else. All other points should be presented in such a way that consolidates and strengthens that core message.

Meet Them in the Middle

If the decision doesn’t go your way, don’t throw in the towel just yet. You might have to go back to the drawing board and redesign your plan. Offer up more than one alternative. This way, you’re able to frame the discussion  as a ‘which’ question, rather than a ‘yes/no’ affair. This technique is commonly used in sales. Rather than saying ‘Would you like to buy my chocolate bars?’, salespeople say ‘Which of my chocolate bars would you most like to buy?’.

As hostage negotiators know, it’s best to ask open questions. Instead of ‘do you like my proposal?’, ask your audience: ‘What do you like about my proposal?’. Closed questions facilitate single-word answers: open questions facilitate a wealth of potential responses, many of which can give you an insight into what problem, or problems exactly your listeners are trying to solve.

Keep in mind that negotiation is not a zero sum game. Thinking about it in terms of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ is not conducive to striking any kind of favourable deal. Focus on reaching an outcome that’s mutually beneficial –  one which aids both parties.

Humans are programmed to be loss averse; they do their absolute best not to lose concessions that they believe are already in the bag. Pride has no place when bargaining. Focus only on where you are before negotiations begin, and compare it to your position when they conclude. Nothing in the middle matters in the long term.

Leading the Herd

Take advantage of the power of consensus. ‘Descriptive norms’ —  assumptions about others’ behaviour — can be used to nudge your listeners into making a decision in your favour. This is brilliantly utilised in the hotel industry. Hotel managers often leave laminated cards in en-suite bathrooms, stating exactly what percentage of guests opted to re-use their towels in the last twelve months. If you see that 78% of guests in your room re-used their towels, you are significantly more likely to do exactly the same. Nobody wants to be an outsider, and no business wants to be left behind by its rivals.

Apply this to your proposal by demonstrating that their competitors on the market, or their counterparts in other departments are already developing similar solutions to the one you’re presenting. This also serves to create urgency – that this is an opportunity not to be missed; that your listeners have to act now to stay ahead of the pack.

Make sure to speak in the affirmative. If I tell you not to think of a pink elephant, what image does this conjure in your mind? Avoid phrases with the word ‘not’. Frame your presentation in such a way that prods them to produce the mental image you want them to see. “If you do this, you will save money,’ is more effective than ‘if you don’t do this, you will lose money’.

The Power of Stories

You can liven up your presentation by personalising it. Humans are astonishingly adept at processing information in the form of anecdotes. Our most distant ancestors would gather around their campfires at night to share their stories, and this trait has endured for thousands of generations to where we are today.

Show them how things used to be, how you identified the problem you’re trying to solve, and how things are going to be after adopting your solution. Compare the paragraphs below. Which one makes you more excited about DrinkForLess?

  1. “DrinkForLess is a mobile application which allows backpackers and students to compare drink prices in European cities. Users are able to compile and share information on prices in pubs and clubs with other users.”
  1. “When I was a student backpacker, my friends and I used to traipse around the city centres of Europe, comparing the price of a pint of lager in different pubs, until we could find a rare place that fitted our meagre budgets.


It was a rainy day in one such pub in Bratislava, after trudging for hours, my clothes and shoes soaking wet, that I came up with the idea of a crowdsourced price comparison application for pubs and clubs. And thus, DrinkForLess was born.

We were now able to gain and share valuable information with other broke backpackers, saving all the wasted cash and frustration we ourselves had encountered on previous trips.”

Closing the Deal

Finally, be consistent in your approach. Keep your message simple and coherent. Don’t muddy the waters with half-baked ideas and emotional pleas. Show authenticity and credibility by being absolutely clear about what you want your audience to do, and offer a transparent path, showing how exactly you want them to do it.

  • Elevator pitch: a short and persuasive sales pitch
  • Ballpark figure: a rough estimate
  • Selling point: a feature that makes a product attractive
  • Trim the fat: remove what is not needed
  • Throw in the towel: to give up or accept defeat
  • Go back to the drawing board: to produce a second plan after the failure of the first
  • Zero-sum game: a situation in which anything you win is lost by the other party
  • Stay ahead of the pack: to continue performing better than your competitors
  • Muddy the waters: to make a situation more confusing


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What other presenting strategies have worked for you? What can you add to our list? Let us know in the comments! Interested in hearing more? Check out our skill workshops.

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