In the basement of the Gobin Memorial Methodist Church in Greencastle, Indiana we had just finished our supper of cole slaw, beans, mashed potatoes, chicken and pie. On this icy cold Sunday night I was a junior in high school and eager to hear a speech from one of my boyhood idols, Bob Richards, the “pole-vaulting parson.” Rapport was about to have a transcendent meaning for me. Instead of standing on the stage, he stood floor level close to the tables, sacrificing some visibility for accessibility. His connection with the audience was immediate, and after a smile almost too abundant for one person, he began his stories. One after the other he told us of athletes who had faced seemingly insurmountable challenges only to emerge with at least a private victory reflecting the heart of a champion. The voice was confident and passionate as he looked into our faces.
Bob Richards revealed the difference between stories of victory and those of victimization. He orchestrated the verbal music of the story with exquisite skill bringing each to its dramatically telling conclusion. And that night he modeled a deeply credible authenticity that has been a valuable guide to me for forty years.
Bob Richards was and is a master at establishing rapport with his audience, at creating “a harmonious and understanding relationship between people.”(Oxford) How does he do it? What are some of the key elements of rapport and what are methods for their development? How do we, being true to our essential uniqueness, expand our ability for connecting with any size audience in a way that makes a desired impact likely?
The Big Two: Confidence and Authenticity
I mention confidence and authenticity first because everything else seems to refer back to them. They combine, in my way of thinking, to establish the basis of presence. So many speakers act from a sense of service and intend genuinely to provide elegant benefits, but something gets in the way and they fail to maintain that surety and openness in their behavior that undergirds the most productive relationship possible with their audience.
And here comes a big surprise. One of the most important ingredients in a speaker for establishing him or herself as confident is also one of the most ignored in their self-development – the voice. The majority of speakers are insufficiently aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their voice. A little success can be a dangerous thing and, though we may get some compliments on our voice, there is much to look at here: excessive nasality, throatiness, lack of variety in volume, pitch, quality, or rate, etc. Speak too slowly and you will often not inspire confidence. Speak too fast and you will be less likely to land the substance of your message. Balance and variety are goals to work on with a good voice coach who is used to working with speakers or actors.
By authenticity I mean believability, credibility. When we first see you, does your behavior inspire trust from your audience? To the degree this relates to likability, the most significant ingredient is the face; and here the smile is the most crucial factor. Research has proven Darwin right; if the smile doesn’t produce crow’s feet at the corners of the eyes, it doesn’t read as fully felt. The face with its many possible expressions is a complex playing field. Speakers would do well to read a bit from more than one source on the importance of the face and the smile in establishing high quality communication. I suggest to my clients that they massage the face and do flexibility exercises with it to increase its capacity to articulate expressiveness and responsiveness. A commanding voice coming from a pleasant face is a good place to start in increasing audience rapport. The real task is to create an internal life that will support the outward manifestation of confidence and authenticity.
To be believable and credible what we say must be congruent with what we do. We want a harmony about our presence on the platform. Further, we must find agreement with a third element in your presentation – our mission statement. The verbal and non-verbal messages must be in concert with our purposeful reason for being there. Only then do we fully honor that privilege of the gifts of audience attention and trust. Let’s look at some specifics.
Gestures: Colleagues or Assassins?
Does your body movement support or sabotage your message? Our gestures can weave a compelling visual strength into our message that adds to audience acceptance.
Sharp, jerky gestures keep an audience off balance; if overdone, these gestures will deny your listeners that state of consciousness, of mental calmness where transformation takes place.
Primitive brain scans first for threat. Part of us is always on guard for gestures that attack or insult us.
Also, rigidity militates against rapport, and, if our movement and gestures are too stiff and rigid, we deny our listeners a feeling of empathy or friendliness toward us.
Following are eight characteristics of gestures too often overlooked but which, if included, can spectacularly elevate the quality of speaker/audience relationship:
- Content specific – include some gestures that illustrate specific details of the text such as height, speed, shape, distance, attitude, etc. You’re giving clarity.
- Far reach-space friendly – find moments for gestures that move elbows and hands out from the body. It shows you own the space and are comfortable in the presence of the audience.
- Space sculpting – do some curves and arcing with gestures. Their round smoothness promotes openness and receptivity in those listening.
- Time sustaining – include some slower gestures where they are appropriate. It allows listeners a rest from the kicked-up moments. Don’t tire us out. Also, when you indulge time it allows the audience the time to integrate your ideas and thoughts with theirs.
- Impact anchoring – know what impact you want the gesture to have. Frequently you will direct a gesture to a person or an area intentionally. See the gesture through to completion; otherwise it will appear uncertain and could raise doubts about your confidence.
- Energy extending – prevent gestures from “half- happening,” going limp somewhere in the hand or forearm. Send your energy focus beyond the walls.
- Tension appropriate – use only what muscles the movement asks for. Excess tension communicates force and effort. The audience will mirror your excess and feel less easy with you. Over the course of an hour this could severely damage your rapport.
- Dynamically varied – develop as diverse a gestural vocabulary as possible. Be as much at home with a flamboyant punch to the clouds as you are with a delicate touch to a butterfly’s wings. Your palette of expressive movements should reflect the richness of your thoughts and feelings, and it should respond to your spontaneity as well as to your plans.
“You lookin’ at me?”: Eye Behavior
Pay attention to your visual anchors. Do you find it comfortable to direct most of your speech to the faces in the audience? Or do you just scan the general populace deigning occasionally to land on specific people as you conclude a sentence or thought? When you do make your point, it helps periodically to keep your focus on one person for a second or two beyond the conclusion of the sentence; this will help land the message. Another helpful eye-gaze practice is to precede a cross from one side of the platform to the other with a shift of gaze to an audience member in the direction of the intended cross; you are now looking at an actual human being as you move. This further personalizes your decision to move – increasing once again your rapport with the audience.
Walk your talk
Find out what kind of information you send out when you walk into a room – down the hall – in front of the audience during a presentation. Do you tend to collapse as your feet strike the floor? Do your shoulders rise up to your ears or come forward in tension? Does your chest cave in revealing a non-vital energy? Do you puff up your chest and ask for more space and power – contentious again? Pay attention to alignment and carriage. Get some coaching from an Alexander Technique teacher and look at the relationship between your head, your spine and your movement. Work with a Trager or a Feldenkreis practitioner to develop a performer’s deeper sense of “active relaxation.” Greater ease communicates confidence, and relaxed arms and legs are valuable in increasing audience rapport.
Talk your walk
If you have not already done so, fall in love with words. Learn to enjoy playing with ways of giving language to your ideas and experience. Audiences are drawn to speakers who speak clearly, uniquely and with appropriate humor. Please don’t rule out some flamboyance, some showmanship. Push the envelope of comfort. An audience enjoys some play mixed with the profound. You can care with flair.
Story, Spirit and Soul
This is where it is: re-membering the individual and communal aspects of our self in front of other people through telling stories that illuminate – that clarify and inspire. Never before has this been so crucial. As high-tech gallops apace, high-touch searches for its champions. Those who would increase their rapport with their audience will find no more potent, no more rewarding avenue than the boulevard of their personal history, selecting stories with discrimination, crafting them with an eye to purpose, sharing stories of victory and not victimization, suiting length of story to importance of point, practicing the art of uniting personal mythology with communal empowerment. Our stories must prove their applicability; the “worth-whileness detectors” of our audiences are sensitive. A story is heart centered at its best. It speaks to the sense of generosity, abundance and community – community through the ages, beyond boundaries and time, across external diversities. Storyness implies what we share in our deepest, most common warehouse. Invite us in with the lure of magic; close with the impeccability of a fine craftsman; fill it with the journey that reveals how tunnels are for bridging, not living.
I last saw Bob Richards at the national decathlon championships in Crawfordsville, Indiana, in 1954 as he competed with his usual celebratory vigor. He was encouraging Rafer Johnson and giving pointers to C. Y. Yang. Mostly I remember him living the most important ingredient for developing rapport – showing up as a good man.