To win an audience, focus on building trust

A few years ago, David was giving a talk to the National Speakers Association on the topic of trust. In front of a room full of professional speakers, he made a bold assertion: “Communication is never the central problem. Trust is.

Allison, who was sitting in the audience, felt a surge of defensiveness. As an expert in public speaking and communication, she thought to herself, “How can you say that communication is not the problem? I’ve spent my career teaching people that communication skills will make or break their effectiveness as a leader.

But she soon realized that he was absolutely right. For our presentation skills to be effective, we must first establish trust with our audience.

When crafting a presentation, sometimes we spend more time on how to deliver the message than on the strategy and vision that will make the message more effective. We make a monumental mistake when we skip strategy and head straight for delivery.

Trust is a process

David has spent his career helping organizations build trust. David and his team at the Trust Edge Leadership Institute publish Trust Outlook, an annual study of the impact of trust across industries and around the world. Over the years, he has learned a lot about the importance of building trust and how leaders gain and lose it.

In the 2020 Trust Outlook, 80% of Americans said they wouldn’t follow a leader they don’t trust. According to research, the number one reason people won’t buy from a seller is lack of trust. Additionally, in the United States, nearly 8 in 10 people would not recommend the products or services of someone they do not trust. Trust is how organizations earn our loyalty: Respondents indicated that the number one reason they wanted to work for an organization – more than pay or company culture – was for trusted leadership.

After the conference, Allison brainstormed new ways leaders could use their communication skills to build trust. She reflected on how she and her team teach persuasion: they emphasize that persuasion is not a talk, it’s a process. Pre-speech strategy is key to gaining buy-in from the audience.

Allison found a direct link between this mindset and the issue of trust. As speakers, our first goal is to build trust: in our credibility, our faith in what we do, or our ability to deliver value. Only then can we mobilize our audience to take action around a shared vision.

Five Skills for Leaders

When Allison finally spoke with David, they realized that their views on the subject were complementary. Together they identified five skills a leader can use to gain buy-in and build trust in the context of a presentation, based on David’s research. When preparing for a town hall meeting or a presentation to their leadership team, a leader might review the five competencies and ask themselves how they approach each of them in their presentation.

1. Clarity.

One of the most frequently asked questions in Allison’s leadership communication programs – from US business executives to international leaders in every industry – is how to cut to the chase. Leaders and their teams know that when they walk away, they lose their audience’s attention and their ability to make a persuasive point. They capture something real: David’s research shows that people trust clarity and are suspicious of anything that is ambiguous or overly complex. A leader may not be trustworthy because he is unclear about his vision. A manager may not be trustworthy because they are unclear about expectations. A sales professional may not be trustworthy because they don’t know the benefits of their product or service.

Clarity is especially important when addressing unfamiliar audiences who have no prior knowledge of your work. clear communication lets our competence shine through. We achieve this by identifying the goal of our presentation in advance, then using a clear structure with logical transitions to achieve that goal. Then we read our presentation aloud and wonder if it will make sense to our audience, adjusting it until it does.

2. Benevolence.

Feeling unappreciated was the top reason people gave for leaving a job in the 2018 Trust Outlook. One of the ways David’s team teaches compassion in the workplace is through appreciation. Leaders need to ask themselves, “How can I demonstrate that I care about my audience?”

There are many ways to project compassion. When we use more inclusive language such as “We did this together” instead of “I did this for you”, we attract audiences. When we put ourselves in our audience’s shoes and empathize with how they feel, then we make them feel heard and understood. Compassion also means spending time before the presentation being prepared and organized, showing that we care enough about the audience to prepare content that is relevant to them. The compassionate presenter consistently uses language such as “So what this means to you is…”

3. Jurisdiction.

One of the ways we inspire trust is by demonstrating that we know how to do our job. Every time we speak, our audience assesses not only whether we believe in what we are saying, but also whether we are capable of doing it.

We can project competence in many ways when we speak. First, we can demonstrate our knowledge of our topic by using examples from our own experience or by sharing current trends in our industry. Second, we demonstrate proficiency by investing in our presentation skills to deliver a cohesive and compelling presentation. When a leader says, “I know we only have 20 minutes, but I could talk for an hour on this topic, so cut me off when we’re on time,” they’re communicating a lack of skill in preparation. of its content for the allotted time (as well as a lack of compassion for their audience’s time).

4. Login.

In his seminal HBR article “The Neuroscience of Trust,” Professor Paul Zak explained how stories tap into your audience’s emotion, producing oxytocin in their brains and leading to feelings of trust and connection. . Using stories is a powerful way to introduce yourself to a new audience because it’s through shared values ​​that audiences begin to connect with you on a personal level.

What personal examples can you share in your presentation? We recommend placing particular emphasis on stories that demonstrate transparency and vulnerability. In the Trust Outlook 2020, 92% of employees said they would trust their top manager more if they were more transparent about their mistakes. There are nuances here, of course: this does not mean that transparency is synonymous with trust, because confidentiality is also trustworthy. However, we relate more to someone’s challenges than their abilities.

5. Consistency.

Although we’ll cover this skill last, it’s actually one of the most important. One of Allison’s favorite speakers is the head of a business unit at a Fortune 50 financial institution. What makes this woman a powerful speaker isn’t her elaborate oratorical skills. Instead, it’s her ability to be the same confident, authentic speaker on stage in front of 1,000 people as she is in front of a group of five.

Does your message constantly change or stay consistent? Are your actions consistent with your words? Trust goes beyond a brand or logo, it’s what an audience feels with every interaction. In order to be consistent, we must be constantly prepared and intentional in our words and actions. Consistency is how we build a positive reputation, both organizationally and individually.


These five skills are not easy to develop, but once you make them standard practice in your leadership style, they will become easier to include. When you take the time to prepare a difficult presentation, speech or message, take the time to ask yourself how you are building trust with your audience. The results will have a massive and positive impact on retention, company morale, productivity, and business results.

About Ethel Nester

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