Public Speaking 110: Establishing Credibility

Depending on whom you ask, you have between seven and ninety seconds before the audience decides whether they like you or not. And that will decide how they will respond to your presentation, speech or meeting.

Neither seven nor ninety are long enough to set the tone for an hour or longer speech. But that is the operating margin you get as a speaker.

I am a big fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson. And his lectures on youtube. You got to give it to the man. He is super knowledgeable. Funny. Makes a lot of good points. And sure knows how to hold the audience in the palm of his hands.

Here is the point though. I don’t necessarily agree with all his thoughts. But I still find him interesting enough to watch his videos over and over again.

The same happens when I watch erstwhile President Ronald Reagan. Doesn’t matter which side of the political fence you are on. When the thespian spoke, you simply listened. More like, sat there captivated. With his powerful voice and conversational tone he could get his point across like no one else can.

Look at a list of any top ten speakers and you will consistently find that they all have the ability to hold the audience’s attention, make their points, avoid being interrupted and keep it all engaging even as many would never agree to their ideologies in the first place.

What is different between them and the others is their ability to establish credibility, even before they can move on to the core elements of their speeches.

Establishing credibility is a conscious choice. Not happenstance. It’s a skill. And that means, it can be learnt.

A ton of research has gone into establishing credibility and several researchers have broken it down into its constituent parts. Content related expertise has to match the style related delivery to work the magic.

For the purposes of this article, we will simply touch upon three techniques. Curious readers can research to learn more or engage in a post-article discussion with me.

  1. Using the credible and approachable voice spectrums: Vocal variety is a key tool in any speaker’s toolkit. With a skillful combination of pitch and frequency, each of us can vary our tones to match the intentions of our speeches. Between seeking a favor and issuing a command, we use a band of voice profiles that say ‘Will you please help me out’ or ‘I want you to get this done by 10 AM tomorrow’. One a request and the other a command. One born out of compassion while the other out of authority. One credible. And the other approachable. Based on the situation and purpose, we use different voices to get our work done. By learning to choose between these two voice patterns, we can establish credibility right in the beginning of the speech. When to use each of the voice patterns, is a contextual question that you, as a speaker, has to determine.
  2. Bringing your presence to the podium: Understanding the purpose of the speech, knowing the audience profile and the mood to be created, the speaker has to bring in his presence to the podium and use it to fully be present to deliver his speech. No one does this better than actors and actresses. They have a tough job. One day they are acting as a soldier. Next day, they have to be a Nobel Laureate. The job is made tougher, if they are shooting for the two movies simultaneously on two different days. But with practice, actors have learnt the art of being present in the moment, and delivering the complete feeling of a soldier and Nobel Laureate right to the very last flick of a finger to the accent and intonation. Bottom line, presence is a much-required skill to establish credibility. One that can be learnt.
  3. Pausing adequately and as necessary: Of all the non-verbal tools available, pausing is the single most powerful one available to the speaker. The sound of silence speaks volumes and louder than all the words in the speech. It is in the pauses that the speaker shows his intelligence to the audience. Not through his words. It is in the pauses that he arrests the attention and holds it on. Pauses allow for the subconscious connection and waking up of the listener’s attention. Effective use of pauses, is a great way to establish credibility with any audience.

Each of these elements have to be blended with several others to establish credibility if you want your audience to respect your status as a speaker and pay attention to what you have to say. Mastering and practicing one in isolation will not do the trick. It’s a combination of many elements that have to be skillfully woven to create that magical effect.

The three above are certainly a starting point.

Establish credibility. Even before you make your point.

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