Empathy is our ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. It enables us to build rapport, listen, and take an interest in how others see the issues. It's also a key to business success.
Many leaders get into trouble by getting too far ahead of their constituencies without taking the time to connect with those they lead.
Two examples come to mind. The first is Paul Wolfowitz, who moved from the Bush II Administration to be head of the World Bank. It was widely reported that he failed in that position because he was unable to "win the building" before he tried to conquer the global challenges he was hired to address.
The other is Laurence Summers, the former President of Harvard University and then a special advisor to President Obama. In his dealings with the faculty, he lost their support and was forced to resign.
Just as leaders need to "win the building" in order to move the organization in a chosen direction, a presenter needs to connect with the audience before he takes them on a deep dive into his content.
A presentation is a micro-moment of leadership, a potentially defining one. How can we connect before we drill down into the details of our message?
Civility is a formal expression of empathy. It is good manners. It predisposes your audience to like you. Civility shows respect for the occasion and for the audience, and in return, encourages them to be civil to you.
Laugh at yourself
All humor is inherently persuasive, but self-effacing humor is particularly winning. It shows the audience that you don't take yourself too seriously, that you have a degree of humility and self-awareness, and that you are likely to be good company as you lead them through your content.
It's all about them
As I have mentioned in other blog postings, make your content "all about them." So many sales presentations could be titled, "My product is cool," or "My Company is the best." It's more effective to demonstrate an understanding of their situation and then introduce your product or service or company or idea as a solution to their problems.
Show how you're the same
People are likely to listen to those they perceive to be similar to them. At the start of a talk, it's a good idea to try to link yourself to what they are familiar with. However, if it's too much of a stretch, it's pandering.
I once spoke to a group of anesthesiologists, and pointed out that we were in opposite professions. They knew they were in trouble if their clients were awake, and I knew I was in trouble if my clients were asleep.
It seemed to work. So I guess being honest about differences can also help with credibility.
Act as if you heard they love you
Many great plays dramatize the fact that if we think somebody likes us, we like them back, and are much more likely to display gestures and expressions that communicate a sense of closeness. (I am thinking particularly of Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.) Radiate your delight at being in the presence of your "loving" audience, and they will reciprocate.
One of the easiest presentations to give is to report research about the audience to the audience. All audiences are fascinated with themselves. If you can tell them things you've learned about them, or about individual members of the audience, and express real interest in what they do and how they do it, you stand a better chance of building rapport.
Remember this: if you're a speaker and you lack empathy, you're like a sled dog who has slipped out of his harness. You're not connected, and you're moving nobody forward.