I was struck recently by a set of research studies that reinforced the importance of touch in persuasion. Touching people (in a safe place such as the upper arm) causes them to leave bigger tips, return lost money, provide help to strangers, sign petitions, and assign higher status to the person doing the touching. Touching someone twice increased the effects.

That got me thinking about how the importance of touch might apply to the public speaking world. Of course, as a speaker you’re trying to persuade the audience of something, in most cases. If it’s the case that touch is persuasive, and more touching is more persuasive, then shouldn’t you, as a speaker, be finding some appropriate way to touch the audience?

Some speakers make a point of introducing themselves to the audience before they speak, walking around the night before, or the half-hour before the speech, saying hello and shaking hands. So would that be enough to have the desired effect?

I suspect it works to introduce the speaker to the audience, but not to make the speaker more persuasive, precisely because it disconnects the acts of touch and persuasion. My guess is that it would be more persuasive to keep the touch and the ask connected. While we may be more disposed to like someone we’ve just met and shaken hands with, we’re not necessarily going to be buying what they might be selling an hour later.

So if you’re going to connect the persuasive moment and the touch, how can you do that without being too obvious about it?

Following are a couple of suggestions; you will, of course, have to adapt them to your particular circumstances and audiences. And forget touch if you’re speaking in Poland. Apparently, the Polish culture frowns on casual touching from strangers.

1.Invite an audience member up on stage. Audiences have been providing volunteers as along as there have been speeches. If you can come up with a good reason to get an audience member to come up and interact with you in some meaningful way, then you can shake the hand of that volunteer and – thanks to our mirror neurons – everyone in the audience will react as though you touched them too.

2.Make a point of shaking the hand of the person who introduces you. Assuming your introducer has some connection with the audience – the president of the organization, perhaps, or the Vice President of Marketing for the company that has invited you in – the audience once again will feel the connection to some extent. It’s a good idea, anyway. All too often the speaker appears unintentionally rude or arrogant if he or she ignores the introducer as that person exits because the speaker is so nervous about taking the stage. So slow down, great the introducer warmly, shake her hand, and thank her for the kind words, before you take over at the podium. It’s worth the extra effort, and it will warm you up in a modest way.

3.Find an appropriate moment to get off the stage and into the audience. This is my personal favorite and potentially the most effective way to (appropriately) touch more than one person in the audience. Perhaps when you offer to take questions, perhaps in an interactive moment, perhaps when you’re warming the audience up at the beginning of your talk – there are all sorts of ways to accomplish the move off the stage into the audience appropriately. And once you’re off the stage you can start shaking hands left and right.

Don’t make it about the touch itself. Keep it connected to your talk and what you’re doing. I suspect it will be more effective that way. But don’t ignore touch when the research shows that it will increase your persuasiveness. Persuasion is what public speaking is all about.

4 Comments

  1. I was interested to read the comment about Polish audiences. My biz partner Sara works for the UK government’s export agency (UKTI) as a Language & Culture advisor and she’s always talking to me about the differences between cultures re communication styles. I just wondered if you had written anything on this topic before.

  2. Thanks, Andy — I haven’t written anything else about Poland in particular. I’m waiting for an invitation to go speak somewhere in that wonderful country:-) I have written quite a bit on the importance of understanding cultural differences in general.

  3. Hi Nick
    I once heard Mark Victor Hansen speak in Orlando.

    At various points in his speech, he would ask the audience if they agreed with him. He did by saying something like “if you agree, touch your forehead” or “if you agree, touch your right hand.”

    So we were always touching and tapping ourselves throughout the whole speech, something I found particularly annoying. But then, someone told me this is a technique to help you remember parts of the speech. What do you think?

    Enjoyed your blog – thoughtful as always.

    Halina

    1. Thanks, Halina — yes, we attach memories to motion, so that device would help the audience remember. I dislike it, however, as it feels manipulative, and childish.

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