‘Hot Buttons’: Press Here to Engage Your Audience

TL;DR – Everybody has ‘hot buttons’: ideas and topics they’re passionate about. You can create a connection with people if you know what they are. Your audience will feel like you’re ‘on their side’.

You don’t create a lasting relationship by scratching the little itch you think somebody has. You have to scratch the big itch you know they have – because everybody has them.

Recently I was talking to one of the shyest people I think I’ve ever met. He was a sound engineer – that guy who stands around on a film set holding a microphone on the end of a long pole.

It was very difficult to connect with this guy. Just as I was about to give up, I happened to mention how – in my experience making corporate videos – some clients think they can make a video without hiring a sound engineer like him. Some people think that people like him are an unnecessary expense.

When I said this, he looked me in the eye for the first time. I thought I’d offended him. But then I saw – this shy fellow had lit up.

Suddenly, he was animated. He started telling me how a client dropped him from a corporate video job because they wanted to trim £300 from the budget. They spent £15,000 on the production – lights, make-up, actors, the works. He heard that they’d had to write the whole thing off when they found a buzz in the audio that was impossible to remove. (He would have spotted that 30 seconds into the day.)

He loved telling me this story. I’d struck a chord. It was a ‘hot button’. And because I’d pressed it, I was his new best friend.

You can find people’s ‘hot buttons’

A hot button is anything that makes somebody light up.

A hot button is something your audience is very receptive to hearing about. A theme or idea that makes them sit bolt-upright and pay full attention.

Most people tell themselves a story. They have a unique perspective on the world. If you can find out what that story is, their ears will prick up.

For example, your audience might believe:

  • “I’m always on the outside looking in”
  • “The world is going to hell in a hand basket”
  • “Things were a lot simpler in the old days”
  • “It’s a good thing I’m here to fix everything, because otherwise those people would screw everything up”

These prejudices, preconceptions and perspectives exist just below the surface. People don’t wear them on their sleeve, but they are strong and deeply rooted. And if you can show you’re coming from the same place, you’re ‘in’.

It’s best if you can find hot buttons specific to your audience. That does take research, so if you want to get started straight away there are several ‘universal’ hot buttons that you can play to.

Hot button 1 – “They Just Don’t Get It”

Professional people are often misunderstood. Showing that you understand them is a great way into their heart.

People are often defensive about how others see their job. Maybe it’s more difficult, more varied or more important than others think.

There’s a popular meme called “What My Friends Think I Do vs What I Actually Do”. The images show six panels:

  • What my friends think I do
  • What my mom thinks I do
  • What society thinks I do
  • What I think I do
  • What clients think I do
  • What I actually do


This meme is popular because it contrasts the impression people have of a job with the reality of actually doing that job. Sometimes the reality is duller than the perception – and other times it’s the other way around.

Showing that you understand the reality of your audience’s job is a great way to get on-side with them.

For example, I’m close enough to my audience (internal communication managers) to know that they have a fear of not being taken seriously. It’s only recently that their profession has started to be seen as a grown-up, strategic function instead of the fluffy, fuzzy ‘people folk’.

Fifteen years ago, many of my audience would have been the people that would organised the fire drill, or put up posters telling people that the toilet was broken. So how do you think they respond when I remind them that many senior leaders still think that’s what they do all day? Is that something that gets them leaning forward and paying attention? Is that a topic that positions me as a friend who’s looking out for them? In my experience, it is.

Hot button 2 – “Burnt Out Hero”

Some audiences are no longer proud of their role. If you can find some way to make the sparks fly again, you’ll make their day and have a fan for life.

At Burning Man, I met a guy who seemed in a reflective mood. He was a financial auditor – one of the people who get paid to go into huge businesses and sign off on their accounts. I think he was looking around at all the wild people you see at the festival and feeling like the square one.

He was telling me how he felt he’d fallen into his life as a ‘bean counter’. Everywhere you looked around there were people with steel encased genitalia, gas masks, wielding flame throwers. Maybe he should have chosen a more adventurous path. He was having a minor existential crisis.

I asked him more about his job. The more we talked, the more I realised that his job was actually kind of exciting. One time, he went into a business with 150,000 employees and spotted a mistake within an hour. It was a huge error. He realised that this enormous company was on the brink of collapse.

That was his life: every week he’d walked into strange businesses and start to rescue them by finding out what the bozos who’d come before him had done wrong.

Isn’t that kind of cool? Just a little bit? Far from being a ‘bean counter’, he was like somebody from SEAL Team Six – part of a crack team of experts who get people out of a tight spot.

I told him what I thought. Later, somebody in our group who’d known this guy for a little while told me that they’d never seen him so happy. I realised that being able to see what you do in a brand new light – having the respect of another for something you thought was ordinary – is a really powerful thing.

If you can do it right, this is a great button to press.

Hot button 3 – “Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing”

“I’m not bad… I’m just drawn that way”
— Jessica Rabbit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Some roles are seen as ‘evil’, when in fact they’re ’misunderstood’. You don’t have to tell people how to fix this. If you can show that you recognise this, and you’re sympathetic – this will earn you their attention for life.

Recently, I was talking to a HR director. She was telling me how HR teams are often seen as the ‘bad guys’ in an organisation. They’re the sociopaths who fire people, who see ‘human capital’ where others see humans.

But the truth – as she sees it – is that HR are just the messengers. Often, they’re the only one fighting the employee’s corner at all. About 20 times, people she’s made redundant have sent her flowers. “Thank you, you made it easier.”

She told me that part of the reason people see her as the bad cop is that senior managers often abdicate bad news to HR. The minute something is about to happen that spells bad news for employees: “Go and speak to HR.” (Often, the manager washing his hands of the matter is the one who’s actually responsible for it.)

Of course, anytime there’s good news, the leadership wants to deliver it themselves.

I’m certain that playing any of this back to a HR audience would resonate with them.

Professional audiences with an ‘image problem’ are very receptive to people who understand them.


Hot button 4 – “Let’s See You Do Better.”

The HR director also led me to another hot button that I think is fairly universal – the fact that most people think they can do other people’s jobs better than they can.

“Some people – even in tough times when there are redundancies – are always wanting to cut corners. ‘Do we really need that consultancy period to be so long?’ I’ll say: “Tell me. How many people have you made redundant? Six? I’ve had to let 4,000 go.’”

Other people are always trying to ‘stick their oar in’ and change what she does. In my experience, this is a really common – and very powerful – hot button. People hate the idea it when others believe their job is more straightforward than it actually is.


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  • CTrom

    Great Post. Never thought about triggering someone in a positive way. Thank you. Going to use this advice to grow my stream community.