Can negotiation research make you a better presenter?

Making presentations is a major part of many people’s jobs. So wouldn’t it be nice to somehow make presentations more negotiable?

Here, as in many areas, negotiation research can help. In particular, a broad reading of the negotiation literature’s distinction between distributive and integrative approaches can help to manage the many types of difficult audience members you might encounter when presenting.

First, let’s unpack the distinction. Negotiators can approach their task using a distributive or integrative approach. A distributive approach involves competitively and aggressively seeking to achieve your own interests at the expense of the counterpart’s. An integrative approach involves cooperatively and creatively seeking solutions to satisfy both parties at the same time. Negotiators can adopt either approach (or both) in nearly any context (for example, consider this application to intra-family negotiations).

And now, let’s see how the two approaches can help us deal with some prototypically nettlesome audience members—people in the audience of our presentations who…

  1. Say they have a question but really have a comment: Under the distributive approach, you’d say, “What’s the question?” in an attempt to call them out. Under the integrative approach, you’d acknowledge the comment and transform it into a question you can answer, thereby validating their point but repositioning the ball in your own court.
  2. Love to hear themselves talk: The distributive approach would involve cutting them off. An integrative approach would involve asking them to pause while you answer the first twelve parts of their 434238497234-part question, then asking them if it’s ok to take the rest offline (most will oblige).
  3. Are saying something dumb: The distributive approach would involve dismissing their comments on the basis of dumbness. The integrative approach involves finding the kernel of wisdom buried in every dumb comment, then rephrasing it in smarter terms. (Making others look smarter than they are is often a good idea.)
  4. Ask about something you’re planning mention shortly: Under the distributive approach, you’d say, “I’ll get to that.” Under the integrative approach, you’d complement them for acutely anticipating your line of thinking, then ask whether it’s ok to address it in X slides. Again, most are happy to oblige.
  5. Are frowning and crossing their arms: The distributive approach would involve fixating on them and trying to convince them. As described in my book, the integrative approach would involve finding more amenable negotiation partners, namely the others in the audience who are smiling and supportive.

And so, there’s a distributive and an integrative way to interact with the many difficult members of our audiences. Although I’m sure we’ve never been difficult audience members ourselves, we’ve all been on the receiving end of a distributive presenter. On that basis, I hope we can all commit to following the integrative approach ourselves.

Negotiation as entrepreneurship

When we hear the word “negotiate,” we often think of ourselves in a “negotiation,” staring down an unscrupulous car dealer or intransigent HR representative. Only infrequently do we treat “negotiate” as what it is: a verb.

That’s a shame because it leads us to forget that negotiating is an action people choose to take. Someone has to decide to negotiate. Remembering that can help us see negotiation for what it really is: an entrepreneurial attempt to achieve our own goals by helping someone else do the same. And seeing negotiation as entrepreneurship can make life more negotiable.

A quick, simple, real-life story to illustrate what I mean: I hate and I mean hate putting away all my clothes after they’re washed. I’m not sure what it is: perhaps it’s the press of other priorities, e.g., the need to publish or perish. Or perhaps just laziness. Regardless, I despise few chores more than folding and hanging. My wife, in turn, hates and I mean hates cleaning the cat box. And her reasoning is a little more sensible: it stinks and spills all over the place, and the cat inevitably decides to resolve his indigestion at just that moment. Loving my boy cat to pieces, however, I don’t really mind it.

Now, this looks nothing like a negotiation—particularly the kind with the car dealer or HR rep. But it clearly presents the opportunity to negotiate—and did in real life. Talking through our respective hates one day, she expressed confusion over mine: “What’s so bad about putting your clothes away?” And herein lay an entrepreneurial opportunity.

No, I wasn’t launching a Silicon Valley startup, seeking VC funding, or even setting up a corner store. But I would like to think I was being quite entrepreneurial when I proposed the simple and obvious trade: How about you put my clothes away if I clean the cat box? It’s not rocket science, and my end of the bargain may even seem silly if you like folding or dislike cat excrement. But it made sense to both of us at the time and made us both better off over the long run.

It’s a silly story, I know, but it has a point: the real purpose of negotiation is not to bend a car dealer into submission. It’s to create value by meeting your own needs and someone else’s at the same time. Since doing that is the same as being entrepreneurial, we’d probably all benefit by starting to see negotiation as entrepreneurship rather than conflict.