From the Lab: Distrusting Design

In a 2004 study, Elizabeth Sillence and her colleagues found that when it comes to evaluating health websites, the factors that caused people to distrust a website related primarily to the visual appeal of the website, including: busy layout, lack of navigational aids, boring colors, small print, and too much text. The factors that caused people to trust a website, on the other hand, were primarily related to the content of the website, i.e., whether it presented informative, relevant, unbiased, audience-specific information in clear, simple language.

While these findings were generated in a web design context, they’re also quite relevant to presentation design. Just as there is a two-stage process for evaluating whether to trust a website (in which websites are eliminated based on design before they are chosen based on content), there is also a two-stage process for evaluating whether to trust a speaker. Even if you have the best content in the world, if your delivery and visual aids aren’t up to snuff, these factors can cause the audience to immediately distrust you and disregard your message before they’ve even heard it. As always, it’s not enough to have good ideas—you also need to know how to present them effectively.

Off the Shelf: I Know, Therefore I Trust

In Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, Annette Simmons cites a New York Times/CBS survey about trust. When people were asked “Of people in general, how many do you think are trustworthy?” the average reply was 30%. When they were asked “Of people you know, how many do you think are trustworthy?” the average reply was 70%.

As Simmons points out, this means that “If I feel I know you personally I will attribute twice as much trustworthiness to you.” Turning this into practical advice, she writes, “When you reveal something personal about yourself people feel they know you.” And this can make you seem twice as trustworthy.

As you might guess by the title of her book, Simmons’ preferred way of doing this is by telling a story about who you are, and this is certainly one good way to do it. But there are also many other ways you can do this, which extend my advice in The Science of Speaking. In addition to reducing your nervousness, showing up early and meeting some of the audience members can help them get to know you personally. As can having a conversation with the audience in the form of Q & A. Yet another way of getting your audience to know you is to have someone they already know introduce you, thus bringing you into their circle of trust. You can also give the audience a sense that they know you by revealing similarities between you and them, which could come in the form of your interests or attire.

Regardless of exactly how you choose to do it, it’s clear that getting your audience to know you is a powerful tool in your speaking toolbox.