A major goal that I assign to all my clients as well as to myself is that of creating intimacy with your audience. I’ve had people react to this instruction with everything from nervous eagerness to fear and apprehension. The difficulty with intimacy – aside from the fact that it increases our own vulnerability, which I will address later – is that it is a very complex concept. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to attempt to break down and address the nuances of communication and intimacy.
So here we go – welcome to installment #1: introducing intimacy. Here is a run-down of some of the issues I’ll be exploring further in this series.
Intimacy in communication has nothing to do with romance, attraction, or with the communicating parties even liking one another. A sense of connection is what makes an exchange feel intimate. When this connection (or the perception of it) is achieved, your message will stick with your receiver with far greater strength than it would otherwise. If you really, really want to get through to someone, you need to seek intimacy in the communication, and different circumstances may require in different kinds of intimacies or different tactics to achieve it.
A sense of intimacy can be felt by only one person and still have a powerful effect. Because it is an individual feeling, it can be experienced by members of a large audience just as readily as people in small groups or in one-on-one conversations. When you are the primary communicator, the perception you should be most concerned with is that of your audience, whether big or small. You can feel all the warm fuzzies you like, but if you haven’t triggered a sense of connection among those receiving your message, than you have not created a sense of intimacy. It’s the opinion and the feelings of the receiver that matter.
While the experience of intimacy on the part of the audience is always genuine, a very adept speaker or performer can fake it for the sake of their audience. While demonstrating a desire for connection that you might not actually be feeling is mentally exhausting, there are many circumstances where you may need to fake it for the sake of your audience. There are some key physical, vocal, and facial expressions that demonstrate “reaching out” to an audience or receiver. Being able to realistically demonstrate these on cue when you are not feeling overly connected to an audience takes a great deal of practice. When we look at these skills further, I will yet again be railing at you to spend some solid practice time in front of a mirror.
One of the trickier issues with intimate communication is what level and type of intimacy is appropriate in which situations. The degree of intimacy in communication that is appropriate between co-workers is markedly different than that between managers and employees. Similarly, the type of intimacy that occurs with a motivational speaker and his audience is generally quite different that that between an academic lecturer and her audience. It is well worth taking time to think about what degree of personal connection you would wish to experience as both audience and speaker in differing social and business roles.
Language plays a key component in both the effectiveness of creating an intimate communication as well as keeping the intimacy appropriate to the situation at hand. At times, your audience needs to you be involved in the message at a personal level; sometimes they really need to you be more objective and distant. Language and vocabulary is the golden key that allows you to navigate these circumstances and still create the intimacy you need. Words have power, and discreet differences in meaning, context, and timing may result in massive differences in the level of trust, comfort, and connection between you and your audience. Know when to mince your words and when to leave them whole. Find authors known for extensive vocabularies and wordplay and read their works; your own word hoard and dexterity will grow. You will come to know which words will help create a feeling of intimacy with your audience and which will turn them right off.
Next instalment: your audience experience of intimacy and getting out of your own head.
In public speaking – and in everything else in life – it is impossible to please everyone. To think that in order to be an excellent speaker you must receive universal adulation is an exercise in frustration. Different speaker quirks will enchant some audience members while repelling others. There is nothing wrong with this; it often just comes down to a matter of individual taste. Our peculiarities as individual speakers are what make us interesting and give us distinct styles.
The way I see it is that if there isn’t a single audience member who is riled up or annoyed by something you’ve said or something you’ve done, then you’ve probably delivered one heck of a bland, predictable speech. Provided that our quirks don’t muddle our message to the point of incomprehensibility, we should embrace those aspects of ourselves that give us our spark of originality.
This isn’t a permission slip to get lazy and stop improving areas where our speaking skills could be stronger. Telling yourself “I’m a naturally fast talker and Lauren said that’s just my style on her blog” won’t cut it. I’ll still nag the daylights out of you to slow the heck down when we’re working one on one. The same goes for aimless wandering, making aggravating smacking noises, or not organizing your thoughts. If one of your characteristics is overly distracting or confusing, then you must work on controlling it. But don’t be surprised if you hear one listener saying that they couldn’t stand one of your characteristics while others say they absolutely adore that same trait. When watching Gordon Ramsey speak, I love how he gets so excited that he bounces up and down on the balls of his feet. My friend (a fellow lover of cooking shows) hates it when he does that – to her, it makes him seem unhinged.
Wondering what some of your own stylistic traits may be? Listen for differences in feedback where the same trait is brought up repeatedly. Pay attention to the different reactions people have towards that same aspect. If more people find the trait distracting and confusing, than consider it something that you need to work on or change altogether. If the majority of the feedback is positive, than think of it as a strength and part of your individual style.
A personal trait that I’ve incorporated into my own speaking style is my use of language and vocabulary. I love long, polysyllabic words and use them often while speaking. I then provide a heavy contrast between these formal, florid terms with a bit of earthy slang and metaphor. This is very characteristic of how I speak both casually with my friends and in front of an audience. Most feedback I’ve received about this quirk has been very positive; listeners find the turn of phrases and the new words very interesting and entertaining. Occasionally, however, someone will tell me not to use “so many big words” (that’s usually how the criticism is phrased). Knowing that most of my audiences love my choice of words but some find it challenging helps me not only understand my strengths and style, but also tells me when I need to adapt my style to suit a different audience.
Paying close attention to when you receive negative feedback about your style will give you the insight needed to adapt your style to different audiences. When I know that I’ll be working with an individual or a group of people whose second language is English, I’ll consciously adapt my language to something plainer and less florid than I would normally use. If I’m talking about a specialty subject to people who are unfamiliar with the topic, I’ll shy away from using confusing jargon or acronyms. If you tend to be a very energetic speaker with a fast, clipped rate of speech, you should slow down if you are dealing with a group that tends to be hard of hearing (such as an elderly audience). Having this knowledge at your disposal makes you a flexible, adaptable speaker while still allowing you to maintain your own distinct style.
Just don’t expect everyone to be happy with you 100% of the time!