Empathy! Yep, that’s right–not credentials, expertise, title, or extensive research. The key to achieving strong credibility with your audience is to empathize with them. Why is this? Because, empathizing with the audience helps speakers achieve the type of true credibility Aristotle describes in Rhetoric:
“We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided. . . his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.” Aristotle, Rhetoric
True credibility comes from a person who is “good,” a person of good character. Empathy, the ability to become your audience’s needs, wants, values, fears, and desires, is key to conveying good character. A presenter who can empathize with his or her audience is truthful–no one likes to be lied to; a presenter who is empathetic conveys his or her expertise–he or she knows her audience will trust a presenter who is wise an experienced; a presenter who can empathize will focus on shared values and goodwill–no subject is one-sided, all perspectives matter; and finally, an presenter who is empathetic has a good reputation–no one will believe a speaker whose reputation is questionable or whose intentions are self-centered.
Achieving each of these qualities: truthfulness, expertise, goodwill, and reputation requires empathy. But, how do we work to truly become empathetic speakers and humans? The RSA and their RSA Animates and RSA Shorts series provides a good starting point. According to Jeremy Rifkin, empathy begins at birth. We are empathetic creatures, driven by our soft-wiring by the “drive to belong” (Source). Empathy is what leads us to not only be aware of our own mortality but also be aware that others are mortal and fragile.
Dr. Brene Brown adds depth to this definition in her RSA Animates short, created by amazing animator Katy Davis (find her at Gobblyne).
For Brown, empathy is what “fuels connection,” the very thing that we are trying to achieve through credibility in the first place–connection from one human to another, connection that helps us bridge divides and conquer opposition. Further, empathy is a conscious process each presenter must engage in. It is a process characterized by perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in others, and then communicating that emotion. Our job as presenters is to make the world better for our audiences, and “what makes something better is connection” (Source). Credibility isn’t about credentials, expertise, or experience. It’s about showing the audience you are a good person–empathy is the key to achieving this goal!