Developing Public Speaking Authority

by Jennifer

Authority in public speaking, image by Mark Normand.

Q. How do you develop genuine authority/expertise when you are an unknown speaker before an audience?

A. Great question, Jennifer! Building credibility has been a question ever since Aristotle, who wrote about "ethos," or the ethical, trust-based component of public speaking. He divided ethos into three parts:

  1. intelligence
  2. virtue/morality
  3. good will/emotion.

So, to develop your authority, you need to show that you have those three things.

Before you go about in your speech developing those attributes, however, it's important to realize one thing: the amount of credibility you need to develop is directly proportional to the incredibility of your claim.

For example: if you're trying to convince me to buy flood insurance because the river just out my back door might flood, then I'm your customer. On the other hand, if the nearest body of water is 100 miles away, I'm going to have to trust you a lot before I believe that where I live might flood.

So, how does one develop Aristotle's attributes in-speech? Below are a few techniques that can help out.

  • Intelligence: Begin with things that your audience already knows. Don't be obvious about it, and don't be boring (after all, who wants to listen to repetitions of things they already know?!), but through in some things at the beginning that will have your audience nodding their heads in agreement. That way, they're more likely to believe you when you get to the lesser known points of your speech.

  • Virtue/morality: Know your audience. If they'll be severely offended by your use of certain words, then don't use them. Don't pander too much, however. Looking like a suck-up destroys your credibility just as surely as does giving brazen offense.

  • Good will/emotion: Tell stories. They might be funny, they might be sad, but no matter what, they are moving. Once you win the emotions of your audience, everything else will follow.

Hope these tips help! If you have any thoughts, use the comment link below. Happy speaking,


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