Presentation coach Ed West explains how carefully prepared public speaking can inspire trust in our audience
“Trust is the glue of life,” said Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. “It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication.” For more than 20 years, helping people to build trust through the way they communicate has been the focus of my life. I believe that the ingredients for building trust comes down to seven Cs: Care and Conviction; Clarity; Conversation and Connection; and Confidence and Consistency.
Care and Conviction
We trust people who appear genuinely to believe in what they are saying.
We’ve all heard the passion and conviction in the voices of friends and family members when they are talking about something that they care deeply about. When they are talking about a referee’s decision that meant their team didn’t win, or how amazing the film they saw last night was, or how scandalous the government’s action on XYZ is.
However, if you are put in a position where you must talk on a topic that you do not care about, then there is likely to be no passion, no tonality and no energy in the speech, and quite probably little time has gone into its preparation. In some instances, you can care about a topic, but not be convinced about your product, service or approach. I have worked with managers who must sell strategies they do not believe in and products that are really no better than the competition’s.
The problem is that the audience can usually see this. I have been involved with several rehearsals with clients during which I have stopped and asked them: “do you actually believe in that point?” Ninety per cent of the time the answer is no. Unfortunately, a lack of conviction is easy to spot and once your audience has seen this, they will call into question all the other points you are trying to make. We have probably all seen politicians trying to defend the indefensible, so it is unsurprising that trust in politicians, and in anything they say, is at an all-time low.
My advice is that if you do not really believe in something, try hard to avoid saying it. Your personal brand is valuable; you need to nurture and protect it. And if you do have to toe the company line and you can’t avoid the point, think about the positive aspects of it, focus and stress these points and then think hard about how you can word your comments on the points you are less convinced about, so that you sound as comfortable as possible.
We trust ideas and people that we can understand.
Warren Buffet, the investor and fifth richest person in the world, suggests that we should not trust or buy something that we do not understand. But life and the business world can be complicated, so to make sense of it we are often advised by experts.
I work with a lot of experts, including engineers, IT specialists, consultants, bankers and accountants. Experts are generally pretty smart and know a lot of stuff. They are often passionate and excited about their topics, and they appear to have their own specialist terminology in which to communicate. This is all well and good when they are talking to other experts but, when they need to talk to a generalist, it can get horribly confusing. Listening to an expert’s jargon-infused data dump, even if they appear passionate about their subject, makes generalists feel as if they are wading through a maze submerged in a swamp. It can be very frustrating and hard work.
Our brains use up 20% of our total energy consumption and, like our phones and laptops, it has an inbuilt ‘energy saver’ mode. If the information the brain receives seems too complex or too detailed, it will often just ignore it, deciding it is not worth the processing power. So, if you are an expert and you want people to listen to you and to trust you while delivering valuable advice, take the time to ensure that you are making your points as clearly and simply as possible.
This is not always easy. Psychologist Elizabeth Newton talks about the ‘the curse of knowledge’. She suggests that the bigger the knowledge gap between speaker and listener, the greater the communication challenge. Einstein said, ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible but no simpler.’ Using simple language and some examples and analogies can really help make complicated ideas more accessible to generalists. It takes more preparation time but, when you can see the light bulbs flash in in people’s eyes, it makes all the effort worthwhile.
Conversation and Connection
We trust people who talk our language and who we connect with and relate to.
If we have difficult messages to deliver to a client or colleagues, we often go and have a drink and a chat in a bar or coffee shop. Many of us have found that it is easier to get our points across in a less formal conversational setting. So, when I am working with some of my expert clients, I often ask them to imagine that they have a drink in their hand and that they are talking to a friend or colleague in a bar. I then ask them how they would explain their point in this situation. On no occasion have any of them said anything remotely like (for example):
‘In the wholesale channel, Burberry exited doors not aligned with brand status and invested in presentation through both enhanced assortments and dedicated, customised real estate in key doors.’
Instead, they use simple language, delivered in short conversational bursts with shortened colloquial formats: ‘we’ve’ not ‘we have’. They also pause a lot and take care to keep looking at their listener’s expression to check they understand and are keeping up. This simplicity of language and extra care and attention helps to inspire trust. Unfortunately, whether due to nerves or impatience, too many speakers give the impression that they are trying to get their talk over and done with as quickly as possible.
When explaining their topics over a cup of coffee, I often ask my expert clients if they have an example or analogy to illustrate the point and to help me to better understand it. Analogies, similes and personal stories, particularly those that our audience connect with, will help to make our points so much more memorable.
Confidence and Consistency
We trust and are attracted to confident people who appear to be their natural selves, who don’t change or put on an act.
When speaking or pitching for new business, I have often observed that people seem to change. In a boardroom they might lean forward, cross their hands and place these on the table in front of them and then talk in a very serious voice with a very serious expression. On a stage it is similar except that they are standing and their hands are clasped as tight to a lectern as a drowning person might cling to a lifeboat.
In both cases, their hands don’t move and the speakers can appear stiff, monotone, lacking in confidence and a bit dull. If we get them back to the bar and ask them to talk about their favourite sport or hobby, they will become expansive, engaging and full of confidence and charisma.
The danger is there is no consistency. If you see a charismatic colleague stand up on stage and appear stiff, robotic and unenthusiastic about their topic you’re unlikely to trust what they say or be motivated to act. But similarly, if you see a more reserved colleague go up on stage and start waving their arms about and talking like Boris Johnson on steroids, you’re not likely to be convinced by that either.
So my advice is simple, be yourself. Don’t change. Build chemistry and trust with people by showing them your real personality and your naturally confident self. We have all had years of experience perfecting our communication skills, I can assure you that by now you are actually pretty good.
Old-fashioned homework and rehearsals will help us feel well prepared and enable us to better control the adrenaline beast. If we can do this, then we will likely appear consistent with our normal, relaxed, confident selves and better connect with our listeners by having a conversation with them as opposed to talking at them. Because we care about our message, we will take the time and effort to prepare well and work to make our points easy for our listeners to grasp. We can then let loose our passion and conviction to win over our audiences. So unleash the 7 C’s to help you build rapport and trust with all your different audiences.
Ed West is a director at Fox-West, a communications training, coaching and advisory company that operates across Europe and Asia. He has worked across 30 countries, helped companies win million/billion-dollar projects and helped organisations raise more than $30 billion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.fox-west.com