Pump Up Your Booth Presentation with These Rhetorical Hacks

May 23, 2019

Don Colliver

Don Colliver is a trade show engagement consultant providing training, auditing, writing and presentation delivery services for companies including IBM, HP, Novo Nordisk, Starbucks and General Motors. Don specializes in stimulating next level engagement thanks to his performance background with Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil.

It was 2017 and I was working at the Black Hat Conference at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. A charismatic sales engineer 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. 

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 prospects. 

Here are three tips for using rhetoric to harness emotion in your booth presentations in order to maximize your trade show results.

  1. Identify with your Prospect

Most trade show presentations quickly attempt to establish credibility (Aristotle’s ethos) with accomplishments and social proof with testimonials and case studies. A more efficient method can be to establish a shared identity including 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,” only to be solved by your solution later, of course! Many trade show presentations are simply rephrased sales decks, loaded with highly technical demos and statistics. A quick stroll around the expo floor shows that it’s a tough place for careful, nuanced thought. While hard features are important, establishing common ground with your prospect’s identity can also be very effective.

  1. Limit the problem carefully

After successfully establishing credibility through shared identity, it’s time to frame the problem that 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. 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. This common problem can also further create a shared identity and increase receptivity to your solution.

  1. 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? Social Psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers a 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.

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 it’s important to use them with care. Keep in mind what good old Uncle Ben said to Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Any use of persuasion techniques can cross the line into manipulation, so please post your thoughts on this historically controversial issue!


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