Episode 32 – Can Empathy Improve Your Speeches?

Empty conference room

Empty chairs in conference room

Welcome to the Thirty-Second episode of my podcast, The Power of Three. I want to help show you how harnessing the Power of Three can lead to a more fulfilling life, a life that celebrates our differences and our similarities, and accepts that we are part of the great web of life.

In this episode, I will discuss why I believe that empathy will improve your speeches, your communication and your message. People sometimes mistakenly believe that public speaking is about a speaker and his message. Nothing could be further from the truth. Public speaking is like a three-legged stool. It involves a speaker, a message and an audience. Of the three, the audience is the most important. Without an audience, the speaker is just talking to him or herself.

The question every public speaker must ask, before starting to write a speech, is “what does the audience want?” “What does the audience need?” If you write a speech without first considering the audience, your speech is really for yourself, not the audience. A speaker who takes the time to study his audience, to put him or herself in the position of the audience is far more likely to succeed. A speaker is not superior. A speaker is there to educate, entertain or inform, but he or she is not better. This is something that speakers must practice, all the time.

During a speech, every speaker needs an awareness of what the audience is feeling, how they are taking your speech. In order to do this, the speaker must have empathy for the audience. If a speaker does not care for his audience, it will come through in his or her speeches. Go back and watch President Obama’s speeches. Why did he succeed, despite all the odds? Because he cared about his audience, and they felt that. He became a champion of the middle classes, someone that embodied their hopes and dreams. He understood them and what they needed. He was empathetic towards them.

I understand intellectually that a speech is about the audience, but it has taken a long time to put that into practice. When I first began in Toastmasters, I wanted to stand up and speak because I had something to say. A number of people tried to dissuade me from this, but being stubborn, I had my say. Many of my speeches did not work, for this reason. Granted, you first need to learn to speak in front of audiences before you can create speeches with nuance. Yet, I might have advanced faster if I had tailored my speeches for my audience.

Even producing this podcast brings home the fact that the message I produce must be for the audience. With each episode I realize that without that connection, without that human element, my message will be lost. The message must resonate with an audience, regardless of the facts, or the logic. Every attempt at communicating with people, especially a diverse audience, must be done with the audience in mind. I am trying hard to find that connection. It is not easy to put yourself in someone’s shoes. It is an active process of imagining what other people are thinking, not what you want them to think, not what you believe they should think.

As I advance in public speaking, I increasingly realize that speakers should not cover topics that interest them; they should speak about topics that interest the audience. If a speaker cannot engage an audience, the speech will not work. Speakers should choose subjects for which they have a passion, but they must adapt those subjects for their audience. Regardless of our passion for a subject, if the audience is not engaged and fully a part of the process, the speech will fail.

Many speakers cite statistics in the mistaken belief that people will react to facts. Facts do not allow us to feel empathy on their own. They need to be followed or preceded by stories about individuals. John Steinbeck wrote, “It means little to know that a million Chinese are starving, unless you know one Chinese who is starving”. This is where we can produce a far more effective speech. Don’t talk about the 33,000 Americans who lose their lives to gun violence every year. Tell a story about one family losing a child or a parent to gun violence. Explain how it affected them, perhaps how the victim felt. Statistics will be far more effective if the audience can relate to just one person.

This is one reason that speeches should be filled with story. The points that we make, the facts that we cite should be fillers between our stories. We use stories to illustrate our points and our facts. Audiences are far more engaged with stories than they are with facts. You need both to create a workable speech. This gets the entire brain engaged with the speech. The logical brain is in a different hemisphere to the emotional brain. When we engage both sides of the brain, we resonate far more with our audience.

When we plan our speeches, we must think about the stories and facts from the audience’ perspective. If you were a member of the audience, how would you receive what the speaker has to say? Imagine yourself sitting in the audience listening to you as speaker. What is your reaction likely to be? Imagine yourself in the position of someone opposed to what the speaker has to say. Then think about how to persuade that person to change his or her mind. Just saying what you have to say is unlikely to be very convincing. An appeal to what the audience member is concerned with, and resolving that concern is a far more positive way to approach your speech.

Humans are at heart emotional creatures. Our ability to put ourselves in the position of others is what makes us uniquely human. In order to resonate with people, we need to meet them on an emotional level. People don’t want to be treated as a group; people want an individualized experience. They want to connect and share in a focused, personal way. This is why, for a public speaker, empathy is essential.

We talk about knowing our audience. That is not enough. We need to become one with our audience. We need to become our audience in order to understand them better. Only when we have made that special connection with the people to whom we speak can we become better speakers. Only then can we produce a message that resonates with our audience.

Let’s say you are talking about environmental damage to a group of oil executives. You will only convince them to take action if you put yourself into their shoes. They have a business to run, shareholders to please, so why should they worry about the environment? Try to understand their thinking and motivation if you want to convince them to turn to renewable energy. You need to show them the advantages to them, of switching energy sources. It can be hard to get the perspective of people with whom you are less likely to sympathize. It takes practice and study to do successfully.

There are ways to improve your ability to empathize. Reading fiction works particularly well. You have to imagine yourself living a characters life, experiencing what he or she experiences. This includes their emotional state. The more we are able to imagine what its like being that person, the better we are able to understand people, and the better we can cooperate with them.

The type of fiction is also important. While most novels will help, the best type of novel to read is literary fiction. It turns out that all those set works you were forced to read at school were good for you. This is also why a liberal arts course is essential to the development of your personality. All our social skills are improved by reading. Novels allow us to delve into the experiences and suffering of other people. Literary reading makes you a better person, not only intellectually, but also morally.

Another effective technique is to develop an insatiable curiosity about people. Try to talk to strangers everywhere you go. Find out about them. Talk to them about their hopes and dreams and aspirations. Don’t assume that you know what they want. If you want to speak to people about solutions to some problem, ask the audience what their problems are. Only in this way will you be able to find solutions to those problems.

When speakers talk to people outside their social circle, they encounter lives and worldviews different from their own. This helps us expand empathy. When we speak to audiences, we can show that we have their concerns at heart. We can speak from a position that is not paternalistic or patronizing. I have a tendency to do this, and it is difficult to change. In order to be successful, I have no choice, and neither should you. Not only is empathy better for your speaking, it also enhances our lives, leading to a more satisfactory life. It allows us to understand what makes people tick.

It does not help to talk to people about restrictions on firearms, for instance, without understanding what drives people to own them. Highly empathic people develop an overwhelming desire to know people, to understand their motives and motivations. I find this particularly difficult, not because I don’t care, but because I think too much. As a speaker, you need to empty your mind of what you know and find out what people want to know. Solve their problems, not the problems you create in your own mind.

I encourage you to continue to enhance your life with the Power of Three and search for the best possible life to live.

Until next time, go well my friends.

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