We butted heads the entire semester. As a professor who prides herself on being both challenging academically and invested relationally, it was a tough situation for me. This student entered my class with all the confidence in the world, assured of her skills in public speaking, so she was floored when she didn’t get an A+ on the first speech. Her less-than-perfect grade prompted the first of several one-on-one meetings. Her argument each time went something like this: I said everything I planned to say perfectly. I covered all of the points in my outline. I didn’t mess up once. I wasn’t even nervous!
And every time I would tell her that all those things were true. But what I could never get her to understand was that speaking isn’t about perfection. It’s about connection. And she hadn’t figured out how to connect with her audience. When she got up to present, she was perfect and polished every time. But her audience was bored to death and didn’t quite trust her, because she came off as robotic and unrelatable.
Call it what you will—relatability, charisma, warmth—the speaker’s ability to identify and connect with his audience is crucial. But outside of our natural tendencies, how do we accomplish it? I believe it comes down to two things, warmth and vulnerability, both of which we can intentionally add to our presentations.
Warmth is one of those nebulous qualities of speaking that we know when we experience it, but it’s hard to define. Overall, a speaker who displays warmth is one who displays characteristics of likeability, transparency, and compassion toward others. A speaker with warmth isn’t hiding anything from the audience. A speaker with warmth will talk pretty much the same way to any person in any situation. A speaker with warmth is strong and polished, but not over-inflated with ego. A speaker with warmth has an inviting presence.
When a speaker makes an effort to connect relationally with his or her audience, it literally changes the audience. A new study found that positive social interactions actually strengthen the vagus nerve, a nerve which is directly related to heart health, eye contact, and how we hear human speech. So when a speaker and an audience experience a shared positive interaction, they both leave changed and better for it.
Most of a speaker’s display of warmth, or lack thereof, will come from her non-verbal communication. Direct and repeated eye contact can build trust and intimacy between the speaker and her audience. Facial expressiveness—the movement in facial muscles to communicate varying emotions–will help display warmth. A speaker can also use her voice to help convey warmth by mimicking the tone of normal conversation with all of its variety in volume, pitch, and rate.
In addition to non-verbal displays of warmth, a speaker can build relatability into his content by creating intentional moments of vulnerability in the presentation. One of the most beautiful displays of relatability was shown in the 2014 speech given by Emma Watson at the United Nations. Around the 10 minute mark of this very formal and serious speech, her content changes tone. In the midst of research and statistics, there’s this moment that works wonders to help her connect with and relate to the audience. She says, “You might be thinking, who is this Harry Potter girl? And what is she doing speaking at the UN? And it’s a really good question. I’ve been asking myself the same thing. All I know is that I care about this problem. And I want to make it better.”
For just a moment, she has been completely open and vulnerable with her audience. And it’s a powerful and moving part of her speech. The reason this works is that Watson identifies and then openly addresses what the audience might be thinking. A relatable speaker has thought about his audience from the very beginning because he genuinely cares about them. That means he’s able to guess what the audience might be thinking or feeling and can address that openly, creating that vital connection and identification that is at the heart of good communication.
Look for ways to be more relatable in your next presentation. By all means, practice and get it right, polish and perfect it, but do so with regards to the warmth and vulnerability that help you truly connect with your audience.
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