Near the beginning of every public speaking course, I stop looking at the audience for a few minutes and speak to the clock on the wall at the back of the room.
I then ask the audience for their reaction:
“What words come up for you when I look away?”
“You look arrogant”, “You look like you don’t care”, “ You look bored” , “You look rude” and “You look really odd and shifty!”
I then ask: “Do I look less or more confident than I did just a minute ago before I stopped looking at you?”
The answer is always “less confident”
All I’ve done is move my eyes away from the audience
But audiences find that strategy of looking above their heads distinctly unsettling. In fact they start to distrust you.
And that’s the last thing you want.
Because if audiences don’t trust you, they won’t let you in. Your carefully prepared presentation probably won’t work if you look shifty.
Audiences need to trust the speaker. And eye contact is just part of the trust requirements for a speaker. I think there are three aspects of trust that the audience wants.
Confidence – trusting the speaker can cope
Is the speaker confident enough to be there? Can I just relax and listen?
Integrity – trusting who they are
Is the speaker a trustworthy person? Do I believe him or her? Do I believe their passion or is it false?
Has the speaker thought enough about my needs, my position or are they just speaking about their own world? Does the speaker care enough about my world?
For a presentation to work well, you have to have a combination of all three aspects. So what are the behaviours/qualities that generate these levels of trust in a speaker?
1. Eye connection as we have already seen, is one of the fundamentals of building trust with the audience. And it works on all three aspects of trust. Eye contact shows confidence, integrity (liars look shifty – we think) and audience centred (do I feel included as an audience member)
2. Ability to uses pauses and silences with comfort. Pauses help the audience to reflect on what you are saying and give you a chance to think.
3. Being comfortable with yourself. Is it ok for you to be the centre of attention or are you apologising for being there?
4. Ability to be present in the moment. Can you handle what is going on in the room? Can you think on your feet?
5. Ability to handle mistakes well. Lots of people are scared about making a mistake in a presentation. Why not just get better at recovering from making mistakes? I make hundreds of mistakes a year in my training but I’ve got good at apologising if it’s really bad or just not being phased if I’ve messed up. Once you are relaxed about making mistakes you tend to make fewer mistakes. And audiences see that you are ok and relaxed if things slip up.
6. Authenticity – do you display a consistency between words and deeds? Is there are an underlying consistent you? Are you clear about your values and do you stand up for them?
7. Telling the truth really helps build trust. It should be self-evident but somehow its not!
So it's better to answer "I don't know" to a question than flounder or make stuff up.
8. Reveal yourself – get personal. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Audiences want to know something about you. What makes you tick? What are your passions? We need to let the audience see who we are. That means taking a risk, for example, telling a story about your biggest mistake in professional life and what you learnt from it.
9. Humility. Humility shows perspective, wisdom and sensitivity. Humility is appealing. But this needs to be balanced with the confidence to be fully present and hold the space. So it’s not the humility that is self-negating .
10. Audience focussed thinking. Have you constructed the presentation/speech with the audience in mind? Have you thought about the problems they might encounter? Be genuinely interested in helping your listeners. Does it feel like a conversation? And of course you can be friendly!
People have abused our trust in the past. We know too well that politicians lie. Even, or perhaps especially, in these days of Trump, I still fundamentally believe that public speaking remains all about integrity and trust and it has to be earned. Most of us, thank goodness, are not politicians. We can see that public speaking is an act of serving the audience’s needs whilst remaining true to your values.