Using the Benjamin Franklin Effect to Connect with Your Audience

Have you heard of the Benjamin Franklin Effect? Traced back to the American Founding Father for whom it is named, it’s an interesting theory that can help us with interpersonal communication and connection. You can also employ it during your next presentation to create identification with your audience members.

What Is It?

The theory proposes that asking for a favor from someone creates a connection that could establish a pattern for repeated kindnesses and overall relational warmth. There have been multiple studies, including this recent research in 2015, that have given credence to what Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography in 1793. Here, he recounts the way in which he gained the friendship of a rival by asking for a favor.

I did not, however, aim at gaining his favour by paying any servile respect to him, but, after some time, took this other method. Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return'd it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, "He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged."

How Does it Relate to Public Speaking?

As speakers, we are usually taught to consider what we can do for our audience, and rightfully so. For the majority of the presentation time, the speaker functions as the sender, and the audience functions as receivers (granted, they send feedback, but we are speaking more generally here). However, the Benjamin Franklin Effect tells us that if we reverse those roles, even for just a small portion of the presentation, it could cause the audience to think more positively about us. In other words, if you ask for a favor from the audience, they may regard you more warmly.

How Can You Use It?

Consider using the Benjamin Franklin Effect in one of the following ways the next time you present.

  • Ask the audience to engage in an activity that relates to the presentation. For example, you might say, “Would you mind helping me out with something? Would you turn to the person sitting next to you and tell them what you are most afraid of?” This hands the control over the audience. They know that they need to participate in order for you to accomplish the purpose of the activity. In other words, you are now counting on your audience.
  • Simply use the word “favor” during your presentation. For example, “Would you mind doing me a favor? Would you close your eyes and imagine with me…?
  • Before the presentation, you could ask for individual or group audience participation. Such as, “Do you mind helping me out when we get to a certain part of my speech?”
  • After the presentation, consider asking for feedback from the audience. Studies have shown that directly asking for a favor will help to create a positive perception. A 1969 study by Jecker and Landy divided participants into three groups. Each group interacted with the researcher while competing to win money (they all won for the purpose of the study). Then, following the competition, the first group was asked by the researcher to return the money, the second group was asked by a third party they had not interacted with to return the money, and the third group was allowed to keep the money. In the follow-up survey, the group that had been asked directly by the researcher to return the money rated him the highest. This proved that because they were kind to him, they felt more positively about him.

Speakers are constantly looking for new ways to connect with their audiences and create positive ethos. It turns out, we may be able to use this very old tactic to do just that.

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