What’s the most important trait for a speaker? Extroversion? Confidence? Charisma? I’m going to suggest something that may surprise you. I think the most important trait is that one that has become obscured of late in our information-overloaded, media-hungry, celebrity-obsessed world: humility.
Why? Because the only reason to give a speech is to change the world. To change the world as a speaker, you have to focus on the audience in front of you. You need to change their minds. But you don’t do that effectively by browbeating, or tricking, or manipulating them. You do that best by first understanding what they’re thinking, dreaming, and fearing. Then, and only then, once you’ve entered imaginatively into their frame of mind, can you begin to weave the story around their concerns that will first invite and then guide them to the change you’re advocating.
For you, the speaker, to go on that journey to your audience, takes humility. Arrogance pushes you to want to manipulate your audience. Humility guides you toward understanding them.
And more than understanding, it’s important to respect where they are. Without the assumption that your audience’s point of view has merit, you can’t begin to understand it – in order to ultimately change it.
The current political scene here in the US (and in many other places around the world) has become polarized and even schizophrenic because both sides have abandoned humility in favor of certainty that they are right. From there, it’s a short step to despising the other side. And once you despise them, you’ve given up any hope of changing their minds. All you can do is condescend to them.
And so we have the sorry spectacle of Republicans showering hatred on Secretary Clinton – still, even though her campaign ended in failure. And on the other side, rather than give President Trump the traditional political honeymoon, Democrats (and even some Republicans) have just jumped right in and started hating him as if there were no time to lose.
Whatever happened to humility? With humility, we are more willing to listen, to assess evidence more accurately, and to entertain the possibility that our views could even change if provided with good evidence to do so.
There’s an old-fashioned word for that: integrity. It’s a trait that’s extremely important for speakers, because as a group we need to be prepared to stick to our beliefs with strength and honesty, but we also need to be prepared to be open to what our audiences can tell us, and to be ready for that question, or that comment, which could teach us something we didn’t know and cause us to re-evaluate long-held beliefs.
In my book Trust Me I outlined the necessary steps for successful communication. First, you have to be open with one another. Arrogance makes that impossible. Then, once you’re open, you need to connect. If we haven’t stopped in our daily race long enough to connect, no communication will happen. Once we’re open and connected, we can share our passions.
And here’s the final step: listening. Listening is a two-way activity or it doesn’t count. Speakers need to listen to audiences just as much as audiences need to listen to speakers. And that takes humility on all sides.
Want to become a successful speaker? Begin with humility. All the rest of it flows from that.