I’ve written occasionally about the power of mirroring to create trust in human interaction. The reason is relatively straightforward – we are more inclined to trust people who look and feel similar to us, and that is precisely what you do when you mirror someone. Recent studies show that mirroring makes a sales pitch 20 percent more effective, and that in salary negotiations you can get up to 1/3 more by mirroring your potential boss during the bargaining.

Mirroring is relatively easy to do with a little practice in one-on-one situations. When I was teaching at Princeton, I trained one student who showed particular interest in this technique. She became the only student in the history of that institution up to that point who was offered both the Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships. To be sure, she was smart and well prepared, and I trained her in several additional techniques, but mirroring was the one we focused on, and she used it brilliantly.

But how can you make mirroring work for you as a speaker? After all, you can’t mirror the audience one by one, can you? Humans—and indeed primates in general—copy one another unconsciously when they agree with them, feel comfortable with them, or want to show solidarity with them. Most of us are completely unaware of this behavior at the conscious level most of the time. If things are going well for you as a speaker, and you can spare some of your precious conscious thought for noticing it, you’ll see the audience mirroring you to the extent that they can sitting in their chairs.

Indeed, when you become aware of mirroring behavior, you’ll see it everywhere, and you’ll begin to understand how the best salespeople persuade customers so effortlessly, how the most successful politicians bind voters to them despite the issues, and how the most powerful executives build trust among their direct reports and colleagues.

Mirroring reflects alignment. When we’re aligned with someone, we mirror their behavior, and vice versa. When you meet someone for the first time, if you like them and begin to trust them, you’ll demonstrate that affinity with mirroring. You may demonstrate it in other ways as well, but mirroring is probably the most reliable indicator of the growing bond between you.

But how can you speed up this process by mirroring the audience to promote trust and alignment? Here are three suggestions.

1.Bring an audience member on to the stage with you. Interview the volunteer, get him or her talking, and gradually begin to imitate his or her body positioning and posture. Follow his or her movements, with a delay of a couple of seconds, but do it easily, subtly, and smoothly. If you try to move too much or in unusual ways, or you move too rapidly, you’ll draw attention to what you’re doing and the other person will feel mocked rather than mirrored.

It’s very important to get it right. Don’t overdo it. Err on the side of less rather than more, and don’t reach too far. It’s better to mirror less than too exactly or too quickly. Especially with a volunteer feeling self-conscious in front of an entire audience.

2.Lead the audience in a simple physical activity. If you can get the whole audience standing up and doing something that will give you opportunities to mirror members of the group as they are doing the activity. Indeed, the mirroring will likely go both ways since the audience will be doing something you asked them to do. Make sure the activity is connected and relevant to your topic.

3.Mirror during Q and A. A question-and-answer session during your speech or just after will give you a chance to mirror the brave and curious souls who do have questions, since they will automatically stand out from the audience. If they ask their questions while still sitting down, then you’re going to have to make a point of going closer to them and finding something about their behavior to mirror. It can be as simple as a facial expression – a smile, or raised eyebrows can provide the beginning of a mirroring session.

This sort of mirroring will seem utterly obvious to you, but if you perform it smoothly and subtly, without overdoing it or responding too quickly or mechanically, the audience will never notice consciously what you’re doing. You will make a much stronger connection with the audience and make them feel much more positively and trusting toward you. Don’t neglect this simple body language tool in your public speaking toolbox.  

6 Comments

  1. This technique seems more appropriate to a stand-up comedy than to a presentation, At least if not performed In a casual or natural way.

    1. Well, as I’ve blogged about before, many of the techniques of improv — if applied correctly to public speaking — will improve your connection with the audience. And laughter is its own reward. But of course you have to perform in a “casual or natural way.” That’s a given.

  2. If you aren’t entertaining your audience you aren’t engaging them. If you aren’t engaging them then you’ve missed an opportunity. Your audience chooses you to listen to in that moment and it us up to us as speakers to reach them with our message. I’ve used mirroring techniques very effectively with large and small audiences. Right on point! Thanks!

    1. I’m not aware of any YouTube video. Try sitting in a restaurant and watching two people in love, or two long-time friends — you’ll see them mirroring each other naturally.

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