I am happy to report good news for speakers. A recent study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin offers a relatively easy way to increase your connection with an audience along one significant dimension.
To understand what’s going on, it’s useful to know something about an older body of research on what’s important to audiences in speakers. What makes for a successful speaker, in short?
The answer is two-fold: trust and credibility. We audiences want to know that we can trust our speakers – and we want to find them credible. Give us those two attributes and we’re happy campers.
I’ve written before about how those two attributes have both verbal and non-verbal components. You demonstrate trust in terms of content by showing you understand the audience’s problems. You establish credibility by showing you know how to solve those problems.
In body language terms, you establish trust with open behavior and gestures, and credibility with authoritative behavior and gestures. The voice is especially important in this regard – to establish authority, speak at the low end, but not the bottom, of your vocal range. Speakers often overcompensate instinctively, pushing their voices too low, thus achieving a vocal quality something like the sound of squirrels playing in gravel – not very authoritative. And a voice pitched too high can sound stressed out or frantic, so don’t go there, either.
OK, so a simple technique to improve either trust or credibility would be welcome news for speakers, wouldn’t it? And thus to the good news. The study found that “a neutral face with a slightly upturned mouth and eyebrows makes people look more trustworthy.”
The author of the study, Dr. Jonathan Freeman, said, “Our findings show that facial cues conveying trustworthiness are malleable while facial cues conveying competence and ability are significantly less so. The results suggest you can influence to an extent how trustworthy others perceive you to be… but perceptions of your competence or ability are considerably less able to be changed.”
For those speakers not completely terrified or over-caffeinated, this facial expression seems relatively easy to adopt and thus use to increase your trustworthiness.
Good news for those speakers looking to improve their performances with body language. And, as the author of the study notes, this kind of body language message is more powerful because “…the brain automatically responds to a face’s trustworthiness before it is even consciously perceived. The results are consistent with an extensive body of research suggesting that we form spontaneous judgments of other people that can be largely outside awareness. These findings provide evidence that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously understood.”
In other words, you don’t consciously control your evaluation of other people’s trustworthiness. Your unconscious mind does. So the ability to influence that unconscious decision is powerful for speakers looking to connect with audiences.
I’m going to start practicing that little smile and raised eyebrows. If I do it regularly, it will become automatic behavior on my part, and then watch out world – I’ll be selling Brooklyn Bridges to all comers. Or at least a more positive connection in my speeches.