Preparing for a talk? You're probably brushing up on your material, making sure you've got a great opening and closing planned, and practicing your pacing. And that's all great. But one thing few of us step back and think about is whether our audience will actually like us.
You can't avoid it: No matter how good your talk itself may be, you need the people listening to it to find you likable. And as the most experienced and well-liked speakers know, there are a few key strategies you can use to boost your likability from the moment you take the stage.
Smile, smile, smile—of course. You know that. But it’s not that simple. Paul Ekman, one of the pioneering researchers in studying smiles, believes we actually use as many as 17 different kinds of smile. And the one that's most effective at communicating genuine joy is known as the "Duchenne smile," named after the 19th-century French scientist Duchenne de Boulogne.
Duchenne smiles are characterized by raising the corners of your mouth and cheeks in a way that cinches the crow's feet around your eyes. In other words, it isn't just something you do with your mouth—it transforms your entire face. The timing of your smile and its connection to your speech and behavior are also hallmarks of these genuinely radiant smiles.
Of course, you can't always rely on being in a good mood in order to produce them. When you're giving a talk, you may be nervous. So you need to enrich your delivery with images or stories that provoke you into radiant smiles, regardless of how you start out feeling. I once coached a client who was discussing an innovation that would replace sewing machines. And while she was keen to talk about that technology, she also happened to really enjoy swimming. So I suggested that she use an image of a diver plunging into the sea as a visual metaphor.
It had nothing to do with sewing, of course, but that image made her smile radiantly as she described the innovation. You need to find the images that highlight your messages and relate to your experiences in order to produce your own radiant smiles.
Ever spoken with someone who has laryngitis? Do you notice that without thinking, you start whispering—as if you were suffering, too? That's because you’re "tuning in" to their experience. The more you tune in to others, the more likable you become.
Tuning in is like dancing with a partner: If you want to be likable when you’re speaking one-on-one, you let the other person lead. You try to make sure you listen to their points and sense where they want to go. You can add some flair, but you don’t want to step on their toes.
If you want to be likable when you’re speaking to a group, though, you take the lead. The audience wants you to be strong and in control—otherwise it’s like everyone is at an intersection without stop lights. You need to focus not just on taking them through the moves (the message, data, charts)—but also through the music (the feelings that add the color and texture to your narrative).
Finally, one of the best ways to be a more likable speaker is by making your audience feel smart. People often confuse being likable with being admired, so they think that if they wow the audience with their encyclopedic knowledge, they’ve succeeded. But if you really want your audience to like you, think about what you can do to make them feel like they’re the ones who are smart and accomplished.
When I lived in Montreal many years ago, I spent a day with Marshall McLuhan, one of the world’s foremost experts in communication at the time. What I remember most about McLuhan wasn't the way he talked about his famous "the medium is the message" theory but how he made me feel. I liked him because he was able to explain his ideas in a way that instantly clicked with me and made me feel smart.
You can produce a similar effect in the way you answer your audience members' questions. I work with a CEO of a Fortune 50 company who often gets asked questions that most in his industry would regard as, well, less than smart. But rather than dismiss those questions, he finds a way to take them in interesting directions. He doesn’t embarrass the questioner—he makes them feel like they truly contributed to the conversation.
Likability is not built into your DNA. It's an effect, not an essence, and it comes from a series of conscious choices you make every time you communicate. Keep these strategies in mind and your listeners will come away from your next talk not just with some memorable information but with the conviction that they really liked what they heard—and who they heard it from.