Audiences are Selfish – Give them Empathy

Audiences are selfish. Listeners care about themselves. Viewers want to be entertained. Meeting attendees care about what the content means for them.

As a speaker, this means that one of the most critical components of communicating is satisfying your audience’s needs. A great way to do this is through empathy. Empathy in the context of communicating is “the ability to be conscious of, and have compassion for, the emotional and intellectual state of your audience.” When you switch from a speaker-centric speech to one that is centered around the audience, you are more likely to engage your audience and encourage them to trust in your message.

According to the leading research in business psychology, empathy is a large part of emotional intelligence (EQ), or the ability to perceive, control, and evaluate emotions. Many studies have been done showing the effects of emotional intelligence on business results. One study found that a group of L’Oreal sales agents that were hired on the basis of emotional competencies outsold other salespeople by $91,370. This group also saw 63% less turnover in the first year. Another study found that sales agents from a national insurance company with low EQ scores sold policies with an average premium that was $60,000 less than those with higher EQ scores. Restaurant managers with high EQ scores have been shown to create 34% greater annual profit growth, increase guest satisfaction, and achieve higher employee retention. In a study with naval officers, described in The Business Case for Emotional Intelligence 2010, EQ proved to be more powerful at predicting leadership efficacy than either IQ or managerial competence.

Communication experts will tell you that active listening is one of the best ways to demonstrate empathy. But if the conversation is one sided, say for a CEO presenting a keynote at a conference, how can you demonstrate empathy? Our communication analytics data shows three primary methods.

The first is your vocal delivery. One study from the University of Southern California found a correlation between speech prosody and empathy. In the study, prosody is defined as the melody and intonation of speech, involving rhythm, rate, pitch, and voice quality. Using MRIs, scientists found that participants with the highest levels of activity in the areas of the brain associated with prosody also scored highly on measures of empathy. This suggests that people who use more variation in their voice may be more likely to empathize with others.

The second way to demonstrate empathy is by establishing a common ground with your audience. This can be achieved through common allusions. By using anecdotes or referencing an event that your audience can relate to, you create the common ground on which everyone can connect. This is why doing research before a speech is so valuable. If you know who you will be talking to, what they’re expecting to get from your presentation, and why you were chosen to give the presentation, you will be able to find the characteristics everyone shares that you can incorporate into your speech.

A third way is through the nuance of your language – your pronouns. A speech that is focused on your audience will contain a high percentage of 2nd person pronouns. As you reference experiences that everyone has been through, it is important to keep it personal. Audiences will pay more attention if you make it very clear that your message applies to them and is something that they can relate to.

We have seen astonishing results in those who have adopted an empathetic speaking approach. Varying your voice, incorporating common allusions, and referencing your audience directly may seem like minutia, but the increase in impact, engagement, and trust from satisfying your audience’s selfish needs, is massive.