How important is a speaker's credibility to his or her success with an audience? That's fairly easy to determine. Imagine that you received an invitation to hear these speakers on these topics:
- John Edwards, "Maintaining Marriage Fidelity"
- Anthony Weiner, "How to Talk with the Opposite Gender on the Internet"
- Lady Gaga, "Dressing Appropriately for the Office"
- Bernie Madoff, "My Best Investment Advice"
Certainly you'd decline the invitation. Why? Because these four individuals have demonstrated the opposite of what they're going to speak about.
The central role of credibility in speaking is not new.We can go back to Aristotle's book The Rhetoric, a collection of his lecture notes for his classes in ancient Greece. Aristotle said the three major modes of persuasion were logos (logic), pathos (emotion), and ethos (credibility). Which component did he consider most powerful? In his words, "It is not true, as some writers assume in their treatises on rhetoric, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of persusasion; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses."
Well then, how can you as a speaker boost your credibility with your audience? Consider these essentials:
Have your introducer mention key factors, such as "She has earned the right to offer advice about entrepreneurship, because her company reached $5 million in sales just two years after she began," or "He gained widespread recognition for his groundbreaking book about the U.S. prison system, and probably you have seen him interviewed on the major TV networks."
Be sure to provide your introducer with the comments you want included--and bring an extra copy of the introduction with you in case your host forgets the original.
Meet and greet audience members ahead of time, with genuine warmth. Even a one-minute conversation will stimulate your image as a new friend.
Consider this possibility: The stronger the credentials you bring to the group, the more necessary it may be for you to generate personal contact prior to mounting the stage.
Quote widely recognized authorities on your topic. Example: In a speech about outstanding leaders, you could include comments from Jack Welch of General Electric, Louis Gerstner, Jr. of IBM, and Indra Nooi of PepsiCo. Illustrating that you are familiar with the best practices of these leaders enhances your topic authority.
To some degree, you are building your credibility by association.
Be accurate with your facts. Suppose you were speaking to your annual stockholder meeting. You meant to say that profits for the previous quarter declined twenty percent, yet you mistakenly said twelve percent. Most likely, this well-informed group will know you have given the wrong information. Naturally, listeners will wonder why--an accident, or a cover up? Even one wrong statement could weaken the trust the group has placed in you.
Answer difficult questions without "bridging." Bridging occurs when somebody dodges the question and switches the focus to a safer topic. Example: Imagine a politician during the question and answer period responding to "What do you think we should do about the nation's debt ceiling?" with "You know, states are having economic struggles, too, and I want to talk about how I helped our state legislature put us back in the black after years of deficits."
Audiences spot diversions quickly, and will either lose interest or become combative.
Maintain emotional stability. You may remember how instantly esteem for 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean plummeted following his "Dream Scream" speech in West Des Moines Iowa--making him the brunt of late night comics and imitators.
Certainly an effective speaker conveys emotion, as Aristotle advised, yet recognizes boundaries she cannot go beyond.
Demonstrate good taste. Treat your audience with unbroken respect. A relevant warning: including off-color jokes, sarcastic mimicking of races or nationalities, discussion of bodily functions, slams against religion, and unpatriotic remarks will separate you from your audience quickly—and probably permanently.
Follow a clear organizational pattern. Years ago I read an article about whimsical inscriptions on tombstones. My favorite, obviously added by someone outside the family: "To follow you I'm not content, until I know which way you went."
Audience members would second that sentiment. They welcome the directions signs—known as transitions-- you give them: "You have just heard my first reason for supporting the amendment. Now let's move to my second reason." Periodic summaries and forecasts keep listeners engaged.
In conclusion: What audiences think about you determines, in large measure, what they will think about the ideas you are presenting. Follow the guidelines this article describes, and you will gain and sustain high credibility.