Though hard for a speech trainer to admit, one trait that is as important as speaking skills is credibility. I’ve heard speakers who had terrible speaking skills, yet they had rapt attention from their audience because of what they had accomplished in their lives. We are concerned with what a person is as well as his or her ability to speak.
I have listened to very poor speakers who received standing ovations because of their past actions and their instant connections with their audience. For example, in the late sixties Eric Hoffer was a popular speaker on the college circuit. He was a self-educated author who wrote a popular book on mass movements called The True Believer. He spoke at Appalachian State University when I was an instructor there. He did all the wrong things as a speaker: he was disorganized, was improperly dressed for the occasion, made no eye contact, and spoke in a monotone voice. Yet when he finished, he received a standing ovation that continued for several seconds. His reputation as a writer and social philosopher preceded him. His credibility won over the audience.
John McCain, shot down in 1967 over enemy territory during the Vietnam War, spent over six years as a POW. He is recognized as one of the great war heroes of our time. He is a boring speaker, but he has influence when he speaks because of his background. He has been Senator from Arizona since 1986, winning reelection four times.
Ted Kennedy, because of the Chappaquiddick tragedy in 1969, ruined his chances to become President even though he was an excellent speaker. Not reporting a fatal accident for ten hours seemed unforgiveable by the public. The classic example of destroyed credibility is President Richard Nixon who resigned because of his misdeeds in the White House. The Watergate scandal sealed his doom. He no longer had the trust of the American people.
Most recently, consider Maya Angelou, who died last Wednesday. Though she did not have a college degree, her writing accomplishments and life achievements granted her the credibility to be honored internationally. A high point of her career was reciting her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. Her credibility brought sell-out crowds to hear her speak. After I mentioned her in a recent speech, a woman in the audience came up and said, “I just loved to hear her speak.”
The lesson for us as speakers is to live lives that reinforce the ideas we stand for. Those who report to us must know us as honest, fair, and moral people. Our presentations will have more impact and can even overcome some of our weaknesses as speakers when our audience members see us as credible sources.
Edward R Murrow, noted journalist in World War II and into the 1960s, said, “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that.”