For almost four years, I traveled the country one week a month, giving a workshop called “Finance and Accounting for Nonfinancial Managers” for people who were afraid of numbers. (Let me feel your thoughts of horror and pity!)

When I asked why people came, the universal refrain was, “My boss made me.”

There was one thing even worse than a room filled with folks who didn’t want to be there. This was a two-day workshop. I had to give them a good enough experience to want to show up for the second day.

Keeping Their Brains from Taking a Vacation

As a leader, you face two horrible situations:

  1. Absenteeism: people don’t show up or, even worse, walk out while you’re speaking (never to return)
  2. Presenteeism: their bodies are there, but they’re checking their messages, streaming cat videos, loudly whispering, or dozing

You Can’t Blame It on the Content

It’s true: not every meeting, conversation or program draws a crowd mad with anticipation (sometimes they’re just mad). It’s up to us to make it worth their while.

Here are two things I learned from my reluctant finance audiences.

Tip #1: Let Them Know It’s All about Them

These people expected me to be boring. Here’s how I started day one.

“Let’s begin with my favorite numbers story, which comes from the comedienne Rita Rudner. She’s in her high school algebra class, and it’s test day. She finished early, so she’s watching the other students hunched over their desks, madly trying to finish their calculations.

“The teacher calls ‘Time!’ and everyone passes their papers to the front. Rita’s paper ends up on top. The teacher looks down and realizes Rita has done none of the equations. Instead, she’s written once sentence on the top of her paper: ‘I’m going to marry someone who knows how to do this!’

“I’m sorry you haven’t married someone who will come in and do all of your numbers work for you. But you’ve done the next best thing, which is to learn how to do it yourself. And who knows: maybe somebody will marry you because you know how to do this!”

They laughed (thank goodness), which lightened the mood. Then they were ready to learn what was in this for them.

Tip #2: Don’t Shoot Yourself with Your Own Bullets

Know The Rule of Three: People can only hold three ideas in their short-term memory—before their brains give up.

If you have five bullets on your slide, by the time you get to idea #4 they’ve lost #1—and chances are good you’re standing in #2.

Plus: your audience is probably so busy trying to read your slides (fearing that you’ll click ahead before they see everything) that they’re not paying any attention to you. At least 80% of the reason you’re standing in front of them is to build rapport: which is awfully hard if they’re not looking at or listening to you.

Know The Rule of Two: When people look at bullet points, only two places in their brains light up: the part that recognizes language (Broca’s area) and the one that interprets it (Wernicke’s area). Both are in the thinking brain (cortex), which is where resistance to your ideas lives. Put up lots of bullets and you’re begging people to say “no” to you!

Instead, show slides with pictures, or tell stories that have images and movement in them. This lights up multiple areas of your audience’s brains, increasing their receptivity to your ideas.

No One Cares about Your Message

Yes: you have messages. Chances are good that you worked hard on these and practiced to deliver them well. But unless people can quickly see what’s in it for them, you’ll never reach the goals you set for this communication.

A surprising number of people came up to me at the end of the finance workshop and said, “I actually liked this! What other trainings do you do?” It made me feel lucky every time.

But it was also a case of making some of that luck. We can do that by 1) knowing what kind of objections/preconceived notions we’re facing, and 2) making our points easy to understand. Both engage the parts of our audience’s brains that want to say “yes.”