Participants in my presentation skills workshops typically cite concerns about not being credible to the audience as one of the key contributors to their presentation nervousness and anxiety. This worry gets expressed in a variety of ways:
- I won't be able to answer a question from the audience
- I won't sound like I know what I'm talking about
- I'll forget what I wanted to say
- The audience knows more than I do
So what is this magical quality called credibility? And how do we get it?
Derived from the Latin credere [to believe], Webster defines credible as: 1. capable of being believed; trustworthy. 2. effective or reliable. In presentations, we can define credible to mean that your audience will trust you are providing relevant information and you deserve to be listened to because you have sufficient knowledge of the subject matter.
How To Be Credible
Some speakers rely on academic credentials, job title or length of tenure to bestow instant credibility. But that's a risky strategy because a discerning audience will be looking for confident delivery, depth of content and examples that resonate to assess how credible a speaker is.
Drawing on examples from President Obama's press conference last night on health care reform, here are some ways to create credibility.
Tone and Manner
The way you 'show up' in front of the audience impacts how they react to you. An assured demeanor, a confident tone of voice and strong eye contact help the audience believe that you are worth listening to and are going to provide them relevant and useful information. Mr. Obama's tone throughout his prepared remarks and while answering questions was decisive and confident, intensifying his credibility.
Being well prepared for your presentation shows respect for your audience and positions you as a professional who knows the importance of delivering value. Have a thorough knowledge of your subject matter, including aspects that you may not be covering in the presentation, anticipate what questions the audience may have and organize your physical material (handouts, slides, notes) so that you portray a confident demeanor. In spite of the complexity of the health care reform issue, Mr. Obama was well versed in his facts, figures and examples, well rehearsed and able to synthesize the necessary information to respond to questions.
The first few minutes of your presentation are where the audience forms its impression of you. If you don't present a compelling reason to listen, you've lost their attention and it's much trickier to get it back. Don't waste this time with filler comments like asking everyone how they are or saying how happy you are to be there. Instead grab the audience's attention with a powerful opening like a startling statistic, a story or a clever definition or quote. Give them a reason to believe you are worth listening to.
Here I think Mr. Obama missed an opportunity to more impactfully introduce his message. He began with a brief summary of the state of the economy, including statistics of job losses and financial collapses. Although this did set the tone for the reminder of his remarks, he could have opened with one of the poignant stories he used later on, or with a series of statistics [for example] about how many Americans can't afford health insurance, how that statistic compares to other developed countries and how much health care costs have increased over the last 5 years.
Using examples that resonate with the audience and that support your key points will help you gain credibility. It shows you understand your subject well enough to use stories or anecdotes to illustrate your message and you understand the audience's needs well enough to ensure that the examples speak to their experience. Here is where Obama excelled. His entire presentation was filled with compelling stories and specific examples which added texture to his message and demonstrated the breadth and depth of his knowledge.
Audiences can tell when you're not sincere. And this blows a major hole in your credibility. Don't be afraid to say you don't know the answer to a question or you haven't heard about that new research project. Even the President of the United States admitted, in answer to a reporter's question, that he didn't know the specifics she was asking for, but would check and get her the information. Your credibility will take a much bigger hit when you try to side step a question or answer with a bunch of fluff the audience can see through.
It can also add to your credibility when you sincerely and rationally discuss an opposing view. Mr. Obama several times acknowledged that he knows some of the American people and some members of Congress are skeptical and apprehensive about the health care changes he is advocating. And he expressed his understanding of those concerns. As a presenter, by putting yourself in your opponents' shoes, you demonstrate your credibility by being able to see both sides of an issue and refusing to be defensive about your position.
Credibility is an intangible quality, sometimes hard to pin down. But it is most definitely a quality that can be acquired and enhanced. Incorporate a confident tone and manner, adequate preparation, powerful openings, compelling examples and sincerity into your presentations...in addition to generally improving the effectiveness of your message, these techniques will also increase your credibility.