Thursday, May 20, 2010

What's credible about you as a speaker?

Speakers get lots of things to shore up their credibility: the bio, your placement in the program, a nice introduction, ownership of the real estate at the front of the room, at least for a time.  But it's really up to the speaker to establish her credibility during her talk, in the information she shares and the way she presents it. 

If the group is not familiar with you or your topic is unusual/new/different from the norm, however, you may need to establish your credibility even sooner, near the start of your presentation, while audience attention is still high--and the group's still skeptical.  I knew I needed to do that with one workshop I led earlier this year.  It was one in a series of workshops for scientists in different cities about communicating with public audiences. This time, I was presenting at a lab in Princeton, New Jersey, to a group of scientists who all hold faculty positions at the Ivy League university there.

With scientific groups, I always share my unusual credentials that connect me to their work: I'm not a scientist, but I've worked with every discipline of science, at several organizations they know well and respect.  Usually that does the trick.  But I've lived in Princeton and the surrounding area, and knew a bit more about this audience.  I was expecting a tougher crowd, somewhat more skeptical than usual; the usual approach to new information is a bored-but-savvy version of been there, done that. What to do? My resume's my resume, and I can't add things to it. 

Early on the morning of the workshop, watching what used to be my local rush-hour traffic, it came to me:  The place was what we had in common. Better yet, folks who live in Princeton get particular about which township or borough you live in--Princeton itself is the name of both a larger township and the small borough within it, and you'd better bet that having lived in the borough is seen as "better," by many.  I'd done that, and lived in two nearby towns, Lawrenceville and Pennington, that also are well-loved by locals. 

So I did my usual self-introduction with my scientific experience. Not much reaction, as I expected. And then I said, "The thing you really need to know about me is that I used to live in Princeton borough, in Lawrenceville and in Pennington."  All of a sudden, dozens in the group lit up like Christmas trees and during the breaks, came over to compare notes, tell me where they lived and bring me up-to-date on neighborhood news--despite my absence for the past 20 years. It was more like a reunion than a workshop, and, for this group, "street cred" and a shared sense of place took precedence.

Next time you speak, consider whether there's something simple about you--where you're from, what your hobbies are, which way you drive to work--to which your audience can relate better than your bio. Maybe there's a little-known fact about you, a piece of trivia to pique their interest; maybe it's more mundane, but universal.  What are some facts about yourself that you've used to establish credibility with an audience?