Thursday, October 8, 2009

Credibility has a direct influence on public-speaking effectiveness

by Richard L. Weaver II

When I taught the basic speech communication course, one of the cautions I offered students at the outset of the term, was to be careful about their credibility—their character in the eyes of others. Because their instructor, as well as their peers, would, at least in part, be determining their grade in the course, if they did things early-on in the course that would have a negative impact on their credibility, it would directly affect what occurred later.

You can’t make careless comments, come late to class, reveal characteristics that could make others question their trust in you, or show any degree of disrespect for the instructor or other class members, if you expect them to trust you, respect you, and value you later in the course.

The public-speaking portion of the course occurred during the final portion of the term, and speeches were evaluated by the instructor with direct input from all class members. Credibility has a direct influence on public-speaking effectiveness, just as it does on most aspects of our lives.

Carefully crafted credibility causes others to remain enthralled by your depth, complexity, and completeness. It not only captures attention but, often, causes others to want to emulate you.

Overall, it is important for you to look, sound, and act the part of a credible person. When your message and your credibility are not congruent (out of synchronization with each other), an unfavorable decision may be made.

The problem with credibility is first, that so many elements are involved in its composition. The second problem is that, often, it takes a long time to establish credibility, but it can disappear completely in the blink of an eye.

Why is it, for example, as Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Blink (Little, Brown, 2005) explains, that art experts are able to detect forgeries nearly the second they look at an object? —Before they can conclusively even explain why they know it is a forgery, they can make a decision.

And the same is true for most people when they size-up others. Even though they may not be able to explain exactly why they feel as they do, they know whether or not they trust them. The difficulty is trying to isolate all the variables that make up credibility. Not only may some factors be personal, but the way factors interact also poses a problem.

One factor that may engender trust is the simple fact that someone took an interest in you, treated you as a personality, or made you feel important. It could be that they turned the spotlight on you—even if it was ever so briefly or quickly. It could be, too, that they simply let you know they were impressed by you.

When others let you know they are impressed by you, the most common reaction is to judge them the smartest, most knowledgeable and personable individuals in the world.

There are two levels of credibility. People often make judgments of speakers prior to the speech. Such judgments follow the cliche, “your reputation precedes you,” and they are based upon everything you know or have heard about speakers before you see and hear them in person. This is the level referred to in the opening paragraph of this essay when students are cautioned that what they do in class prior to the speech portion of the course, can hurt them.

All speakers can create a resume, establish credentials, build a reputation, or develop expertise, and all of these are important as speakers move toward delivering a speech. In general, however, they are completed before the speech occasion itself, and introducers of speakers make a point of highlighting many of those accomplishments.

But, the question here is, what can speakers do to build their credibility within the speech itself. It is the second level of credibility.

If you are a public speaker, and if your goal is to persuade others, there are a number of well-known, specific factors over which you have direct control. These factors can be grouped under the categories of competence, trustworthiness, and dynamism.

Competence is related to your knowledge base — how much you know. Are you trained, qualified, informed, and authoritative? The way to develop competence within a speech is to quote people who are acknowledged experts on your topic. Refer to your research effort, use the special vocabulary of experts, without being a verbal show off, and mention your personal involvement with your topic.

There are two other ways that can reveal competence, too, that are often overlooked. First, list the important facts or issues pertinent to your topic, even though you may later ignore all but a few of the issues during the body of your speech. People perceive lists as revealing knowledge or analytic skills.

Second, and this may be one of the most important ways people have to reveal competence, be organized. The organizational pattern you follow as you approach your topic is unimportant; the clarity of your organization reveals sound speech analysis.

Trustworthiness relates to the relationship you have with your audience in any particular speech context. Do listeners think you are kind, safe, friendly, and pleasant? To build trust, self-disclose (for example, what are your private reasons for being interested in your topic?), compliment your audience, ask for trust, demonstrate an awareness of alternative positions, claim your prior commitment (for example, remind your audience of your prior actions), claim common ground with your audience (for example, demonstrate that your basic orientation is compatible with theirs), and look your listeners in the eye as you communicate with them.

Dynamism is what is known as an activity dimension because it relates to how aggressive, bold, and forceful you are. To support dynamism within your speech, demonstrate active and emotional commitment to your topic. Be a fluent and purposeful speaker. And, by all means, exhibit an animated delivery style that verifies and underscores your concern, involvement, and interest.

As noted, credibility has a direct influence on public-speaking effectiveness, just as it does on most aspects of our lives. Not only must we be vigilant in constructing our credibility, but we must be even more vigilant and cautious in preserving it as well.

Christine W. Zust, at the website, has an essay entitled, “Communicating with credibility,” in which she discusses eight ways for developing (or maintaining) credibility: 1) align your verbal and nonverbal language, 2) lead by listening, 3) make realistic promises and keep them, 4) speak from the heart, 5) be yourself, 6) be an expert, 7) be honest, and 8) be proactive.

At the Thomas Group Ltd. website, there is a wonderful essay by Paul Thomas under his byline, “Thomas Tips,” entitled, “Establishing personal credibility,” which is specifically designed for those who are in, going in, or planning for a future in business. This is one of those “must read” essays full of practical, applicable, and useful suggestions.

You can read more about credibility in my book, Public Speaking Rules: All You Need for a Great Speech. Chapter 7, "Develop Your Credibility," (pages 75-92) discusses how you develop it through quality communication, before a speech, during a speech, and through interaction with your listeners. This book covers the nuts-and-bolts rules necessary for giving a great speech, and the book is both easy to read and easy to use.

Copyright October, 2009 - And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.

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