Are Options or Directives More Compelling?

I attended a conference recently that focused on embracing change to ensure a kind of sustainability in at-risk organizations. The sessions were substantive, relevant, and thought provoking.

I took in two presentations back to back, both delivered by polished professionals — one a consultant, one a researcher — both women of approximately the same age. Each one was well equipped for the particular audience and had practical, applicable data to share.

So I was surprised to find that I loved one of the talks and couldn’t wait to escape from the other. In the first session, I found myself to be detached, skeptical, and even oppositional, but the second presentation left me feeling excited, optimistic, and actually grateful.

I’ve thought a lot about why I had such different reactions.

In the first session, the presenter told us not only what the research found, but also the specific ways in which it should be used to do successful work going forward. When attendees asked questions about alternatives and modifications, the speaker was disinterested at best. Occasionally she was even downright disapproving — her findings and suggestions were apparently meant to be used as directed. Those of us who were interested in tweaks, quirks, and modifications felt, well, dissed.

In contrast, during the second session, the speaker showed us a number of potentially productive alternative ways to use her data and talked about the different ways they could be implemented, combined, and adjusted to suit our needs. It was all food for thought and every question was met with encouragement. What a difference!

I was very uncomfortable in the first session, although I can see why some people might prefer the sense of security that comes with expert definitiveness. There was no question that the speaker’s instructions could be used to advance people beyond their current levels of expertise — if they hadn’t been thinking ahead and hadn’t already been trying to do any of this work on their own — but her prescriptiveness made me feel locked in and rebellious.

The second session was much more sparky. It created a sense of possibility and individual ownership — but I could see that the second presenter might have been confusing, too open-ended, or actually overwhelming to people who didn’t already have a sense of where they were trying to go.

And yet, both speakers have fantastic reputations. Which just goes to show you that a presenter’s success depends upon the listener’s preferences. Which would you choose, and in what circumstances: “Here are lots of things you can do to be successful” or “Here’s what you have to do to be successful”?

Both stances are valid and perfectly appropriate, depending on who and how you are, and what you want to change.

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