How important is it for audiences to like their speakers? Most speakers won’t admit it, but a big part of why they get into the business of professional public speaking, like acting, or politics, is that they want to be liked. But, as I’ve blogged before, if you want to change the world, and change the audience in front of you, you have to be willing to risk not being liked. The reason is that people hang on to their current beliefs, not wanting to change, unless you really shake them up – and to do that you have to be willing to risk the relationship.
For the speaker that wants to be liked, the signs of an audience getting ready to change its mind are scary – restiveness, anger, uneasiness, frowns, head scratching, crossed arms – all the signals of unsettled body language. If you’re not afraid of pitching in to the audience, these signs are exactly what you’re looking for.
Nonetheless, even if you’re going to risk the relationship during the speech, it’s good to start with a relationship to risk. In other words, you do want to establish a positive relationship with the audience at the outset, in order to create trust so that they’ll be willing to hear your POV.
Now, the fastest way to increase an audience’s favorable impression of you is to send them some positive vibes. Liking begets liking. And the good news is that the body language of liking is well-established. Following are five ways to increase your positive connection with an audience. As you’ll see, they’re basic, four of the five are easy to do, and they will establish you as the Mr. Rogers of public speaking.
Begin with a smile. It all starts here, not surprisingly. Smiles warm up the encounter, and answer positively the first question any audience – any person – has of an initial encounter with someone you don’t know: friend or foe? Start with a smile, and you won’t have to gear the audience up for a fight. Of course, if your initial comments are serious, or bad news, or the like, then don’t start with a smile. You never want to disconnect your face from your emotions unless you’re playing poker.
Continue with strong eye contact. This one is such a basic of public speaking it hardly needs mentioning, but since there are experts who will tell you not to look at the audience if it makes you nervous, then I’m here to tell you that you must look at the audience. Period.
Once you’re well launched, risk a joke. I urge speakers not to start with a joke, because that’s the time, in the height of nervousness, when you’re most likely to blow the punch line. So wait a couple of minutes, until you start to relax, then try your humor. Humor is its own justification, if you get a laugh, and it makes everyone feel better. Have a funny follow-up cover line in case the audience doesn’t laugh at the joke.
Have a real conversation. If someone feels listened to, they’re more likely to like you. So, initiate a conversation with the audience, not a monologue. Find ways to ask questions, poll the group, focus on one or two people for a little longer, and so on.
And finally, get close to them. We tend to move toward things and people we like and draw back from things and people we don’t like. That’s such a basic part of body language that it’s hard to fake and yet because speakers tend to wander all over the stage, they’re always moving away from some part of the audience. Thus, some portion of the audience is always getting the message that the speaker doesn’t approve of them. Instead, find ways to get close enough to parts of the audience to shake hands with them. Make it look natural, fit it into the speech, and just do it.
These signs of favor will help create a strong bond with your audience and help you help them change their minds. The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.