San Francisco, CA- It was 2017, and I was working at the Black Hat Conference at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. A charismatic sales engineer on a makeshift stage had a crowd spilling out of his booth and blocking the aisle. His prospects were transfixed- cheering on his command, eagerly leaning forward, ready to do anything he asked. No, he wasn’t doing a raffle, he was using the principles of rhetoric to persuade and mesmerize his audience. These classic principles can offer huge power to trade show professionals who wield them effectively. Below I’ll define rhetoric and give three tips on how to use it in your booth presentations to maximize your booth results.

Rhetoric on the Expo Floor

Aristotle defined Rhetoric as "the ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion.” He defined the three means of persuasion as ethos (credibility), pathos (emotion) and logos (logic). Most trade show presentations rely too much on logic and can be far more effective by utilizing emotion and credibility/shared identity to persuade groups of prospects in their booths. The “group” aspect is critical. Whereas a sales deck may be presented to a single person, a trade show presentation will be presented to a group of 8-30 people, and groups behave much differently. Just ask Sigmund Freud, one of the first trade show consultants! According to Freud, when individuals are part of a group, they have a tendency to be infected by any emotion within the group, and then to actually amplify that emotion through what he called, “mutual induction.” So, if you can elicit a group emotion through your presentation, it will become self-sustaining and grow on its own accord.

Sigmund Freud, trade show consultant

Emotion can be powerful, unpredictable and not terribly bright. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt described a model of emotion as an elephant (our emotional side) and a rider (our rational side.) Chip and Dan Heath elaborate in their book “Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard”:

Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.

Admittedly, in the business-to-business space buying decisions are made with input from many stakeholders over time. However, each of those stakeholders is an emotional human being, and on the trade show floor we should utilize the most effective tools in our marketing arsenal. So, here are three tips to use in your presentation to speak to the emotional elephant, rather than the rational rider.

Identify with your Prospect

Most trade show presentations quickly attempt to establish credibility (Aristotle’s ethos) by overwhelming prospects with accomplishments and social proof in the form of testimonials and case studies. A more efficient and effective method can be to establish common ground and a shared identity. Strive to create an inclusive group which includes both your prospects and yourself. A quick way to do this in your presentation is by defining a common problem that “we’ve all faced,” opening the door to inside jokes and lamenting- only to be solved by your solution later, of course!

It helps here to passionately give voice to your prospects’ common sentiments, complaints and aspirations. The word “demagogue” generally holds a negative connotation, but it deserves a second look in the trade show setting. Google defines the word as one “who seeks support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument.” Many trade show presentations are simply rephrased sales decks, loaded with highly technical demos and statistics. A quick stroll around the expo floor can show that it’s a tough place for careful, nuanced thought and evaluation. While hard features are important, establishing common ground with your prospect’s identity can also be very effective when used with restraint.

Limit the problem carefully

Uncle Sam, trade show consultant

After successfully establishing credibility through shared identity, its time to frame the problem which your solution solves. Government wartime propaganda offers a useful example here. During times of conflict, news outlets consolidate multiple enemies into one, and portray complicated situations as black/white and good/evil. This is highly effective as a means to create group identity and motivate action, and this technique can also be used in the much lower stakes world of trade show presentations. Consider reverse engineering your problem to clearly point to your value proposition. In his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” social psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes an overriding cognitive bias that humans share, abbreviated as WYSIATI, or “What You See Is All There Is.” Essentially, those problems which are most recent and easily accessible seem most important. Consolidating the problem can also further create a shared identity and increase receptivity to your solution. Save those complicated use-case specifics for one-on-one demos.

Connect to basic human needs

Finally, connect the dots from your feature, to your benefit, then all the way back to your prospects’ basic human needs and desires. Sure, your solution is easy to install, but what does that mean to your prospect in his day to day life? More time, saved money, or a longer lunch? Daniel Kahneman offers another tip here from his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow:” Humans have been shown to be primarily loss-averse. In other words, your prospects are more likely to act to avert a loss than to achieve a gain, so showing avoidance of bad outcomes is more effective than showing gains when pitching your solution.

Handle with Care

spidemank trade show consultant

Using these three rhetorical techniques will have a measurable effect on your qualified booth conversations. Their power has been leveraged for centuries for both good and nefarious ends, so its important to use them with care. Keep in mind what good old Uncle Ben said to Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Aristotle himself also had something to say about that:

If it is urged that an abuse of the rhetorical faculty can work great mischief, the same charge can be brought against all good things (save virtue itself) such as strength, health, wealth, and military skill. Rightly employed, they work the greatest blessings.

Any use of persuasion techniques can cross the line into manipulation, and I’m fascinated by where we choose to draw that moral boundary. Please post your thoughts on this historically controversial issue!