How to use your next presentation to build personal and professional credibility

“What does this guy know about what we’re dealing with every day?”

“She has no clue what she’s talking about.”

“He’s trying to sell us something, and I’m not buying it.”

If you’ve ever sat in the audience and listened to a speaker whom you didn’t trust, chances are you felt defensive, dismissive, or even insulted.  You probably rolled your eyes, crossed your arms, bounced your leg and sent a range of body languagesignals that you weren’t having it. You likely tuned him out—and even walked out of the meeting early. And if you really felt like your trust was violated, you might have even told other people. Lots of other people.

Of course, it might not have been in a conference hall or meeting room. It might have been on television the last time you heard a politician or elected official speak about their policy flip-flop, or at the car dealership listening to the salesman pitch you on why you need the latest (and the most expensive) model, with the bells and whistles you couldn’t possibly live without.

Now imagine that speaker were you.  (I know, I know—impossible to imagine, but stick with me here for a moment). Imagine that you’re at your company’s town hall, sitting on a panel, at a critical client meeting, speaking at a conference, or even appearing at your kid’s career day at school. What if you looked out at the sea of colleagues, peers, bosses, potential and actual customers—or children—and saw them shaking their heads, crossing their arms, and figuring out the nearest means of escape? You realized—too late—that they just didn’t trust you.

(OK, you can stop imagining now).

What you just pictured isn’t just a practical matter of speaking and hearing the truth. There’s a biological process that’s happening behind those scenes that impact trust. In his Harvard Business Review article, “The Neuroscience of Trust” Paul Zak reports that a release of oxytocin (the same hormone that gets released when a mother nurses her baby) causes feelings of trust. Oxytocin also “increases a person’s empathy, a useful trait for social creatures trying to work together” and in communicating with one another successfully. A lack of trust creates feelings of stress, which inhibits oxytocin, and makes it challenging for people to interact well. Without oxytocin, there’s no bonding. And where there’s no bonding, you’ve left your listeners behind.

As Warren Buffet once remarked, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” And that five minutes could be the speech you make that undermines your professional or personal credibility. The bad news is, it doesn’t take multiple violations of trust for there be significant reputational costs. The good news is, it isn’t complicated to deliver a presentation that develops trust with your listeners for short- and long-term beneficial impact.

Trustworthy presenters:

  • Share their credentials without over-sharing (boasting) or minimizing them.
  • Address the audience’s WIIFM (“What’s In It For Me?”) early and often.
  • Tell the truth, even if it’s unpopular.
  • Validate the audience members’ feelings, rather than telling them how they should feel.
  • Admit when the audience’s interests and their own might be in conflict.
  • Consider the level of technical, language, cultural or subject-matter understanding of the audience, and adapts accordingly.
  • Match their tone to the message and the occasion.
  • Make sure their vocals (tone of voice), verbals (word choice), and non-verbals (body language) match.
  • Use facts, statistics, logic, evidence and examples to prove their points.
  • Share how their own behaviors align with the message they’re delivering.
  • Check in with the audience to see what they understand and/or how they’re experiencing the message.
  • Tell true stories that get to the point quickly and clearly.
  • Admit mistakes and apologize quickly, if necessary.
  • Stick to the amount of time they were supposed to speak, even if other presenters have gone long.
  • Practice their presentation out of respect for the audience’s time and attention.

Untrustworthy presenters:

  • Say “Trust me” or “Believe me” repeatedly.
  • Talk about themselves too much.
  • Use humor at the expense of others.
  • Rely primarily on their own or other people’s opinions as evidence.
  • Use questionable sources of data or research.
  • Exaggerate and use hyperbole (including words like “always,” “never,” and “everyone”).
  • Overreach the boundaries of their subject matter expertise.
  • Withhold information to gain or maintain power.
  • Blame others.
  • Overpromise and under-deliver.
  • Break promises.
  • Keep bringing up the past as an excuse or explanation.
  • Get angry in the face of challenging questions or differing opinions.
  • Fail to say, “I don’t know” when they don’t know.
  • Stick to their conclusions even in the face of new, relevant information.

Albert Einstein said, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” Your next presentation might be a small matter, but it’s a big opportunity to show that you can be trusted with important ones.