It’s the fundamental question that every audience asks when they look at a speaker.
Actually, it’s two questions. The first is can we trust you to know what you’re talking about? The second is can we trust you to be honest with us.
When I work with students or clients, I emphasize the importance of presenting themselves with an air of confidence. I work with them on standing tall and straight, quieting and opening their body language and gestures and keeping the shoulders soft and relaxed. That’s the image of a speaker that is comfortable and confident in what he or she is saying; a speaker whose competence the audience feels it can trust.
But that is only half of the story. A recent study reported in the New York Times, Who’s Trustworthy? A Robot Can Help Teach Us, made me realize that our audience is judging more than our own level of confidence. They are also looking for signs of dishonesty.
Researchers from Northeastern University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell, using a simple game theory experiment, discovered that we do judge the trustworthiness of others based on visual clues.
No surprise there. Everyone knows that liars have shifty eyes, right?
In fact, the researchers found four specific gestures that your audience will see as signs of dishonesty, especially when combined:
- Leaning away
- Crossing your arms in front of you
- Clutching or rubbing your hands together
- Touching yourself on the face, chest or abdomen
Doesn’t that sound like the image of every nervous speaker you’ve ever seen; perhaps the image of you at times?
These are all common reactions to the emotional stress of public speaking, but the evidence shows that your audience reads them, not simply as stress reactions, nor even as a lack of self-confidence, but as signs of dishonesty.
Effective speaking is about more than just the words you say. The way you present yourself is as important as the way you present your subject matter. You need to learn not only to project confidence in yourself, but to quiet the signals that kill your credibility.
It’s tough enough to get your point across persuasively to an audience who trusts you. Why make it any harder than it needs to be?