Trust and authenticity – what, if anything, can we learn from politicians?

More than ever before, this General Election seems hinged on people and personalities rather than parties and policies. Who seems credible? Who is authentic? Who can we place our trust in?

To garner trust, politicians need to master three disciplines – their words, tone and body language. All are of vital importance.

And whether you’re speaking to colleagues or customers, proficiency in these same three disciplines will help inspire confidence. Here are some of the things we can learn from politicians.

A way with words

Barack Obama was an accomplished speaker, even dubbed the ‘orator-in-chief’. He seemed thoughtful, fluent, precise and unruffled. He chose his words carefully and was rarely lost for them. All things which demonstrated composure and self-control. He was a master of the pause. And during that pause we leaned in, expectant in the silence, to hear what was coming next.

When it comes to words, you have only to look at the recent furore over Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott’s comments on policing figures, or the flurry of tweetsabout Theresa May’s repetition of ‘Strong and Stable’, to see that a politician’s words are scrutinised. And how much getting them right matters. 

Dulcet tones

Margaret Thatcher had vocal coaching in the 1970s to help lower her pitch. The aim was to sound calm and authoritative. And when it comes to low tones, a study conducted by the Universities of Miami and North Carolina backs up this theory.

The study showed that political candidates with deeper voices tend to win more votes. Voter interviews suggested that deeper voices (both male and female) convey physical strength, competence and integrity. In another part of the study, researchers also found that women with lower voices were perceived as stronger, more trustworthy and competent.

If I speak quietly, with a faltering, broken tone and round off sentences with a questioning upward inflection, you’re unlikely to trust what I’m saying. If I use a centred, relaxed voice, a confident unwavering tone and downward inflections at the end of my sentences, you’re likely to believe me. Why? Because when we listen to someone, we put them through our own internal lie detector, to judge whether we feel we can trust them or not. And their tone is the tell. It reveals underlying emotions and attitudes.

Body of evidence

Another feature of Obama’s delivery was his stillness. It meant we could focus on just the words. This is the opposite of the current POTUS, Donald Trump who uses a variety of distinct hand gestures to hammer home his point.

Speaking of which, all eyes were on the Trump / Macron handshake recently. In all these gestures, there’s a duel of confidence and dominance. The ‘ownership’ symbol of the guiding ‘hand on the back’ seen frequently when politicians meet. It was memorably used as Blair and Bush went through the door of Number 10 some years back. As for confidence, Nick Clegg’s assured demeanour in the 2010 Leader’s Debate turned him from ‘also-ran’ to ‘contender’ overnight, with one poll putting the Lib Dems up by 14 points after his appearance.

Be yourself

Why is ‘being yourself’ so prized when it comes to trust? In the States, they might call it ‘owning your story’ or ‘keeping it real’. During Donald Trump’s election campaign, a blunder or inconvenient truth seemed ultimately to further his cause. Many felt he was candid and unambiguous. By contrast, Hillary Clinton came across as polished and rehearsed, which may have made her seem less genuine and ironically less trustworthy. Impulsive spontaneity in the case of Trump, equalled the perception of honesty – even if it got him into hot water. Dylan Byers, writing for CNN, said “Despite two-and-a-half decades in the public eye, Clinton is still trying to convince American voters that she is real, authentic and, yes, likable.” Another who seems to score well for ‘being himself’ is Jeremy Corbyn – with the word ‘principled’ coming up more that the word ‘polished’, in reviews and column inches about him.

Here are some tips for speaking with confidence and earning trust:

  1. Keep your word – whether it’s in personal relationships, business or politics, we trust people who do what they say they will.

  2. Make the script your own – the job of an actor is to bring the written word to life in a believable way. Politicians must do the same when giving speeches. If you use scripting in your contact centre or templates in your written communications, make sure they sound fluent and natural.

  3. Vocal power – we work harder to listen to someone who is speaking too loudly, just like we find it harder to read phrases written in capital letters. We also get frustrated by those who are very quietly spoken, as we have to double our efforts to hear them. We may miss something, which leads to repetition and extra time on our part. 

  4. Pitch – lower tones can translate as calm, relaxed confidence and integrity in the speaker. We tend to use a higher pitch with stronger emotions such as anxiety, surprise, excitement, anger. And strong emotions are therefore not associated with being ‘in control’. We also associate higher pitch with younger voices, and as youth tends to correspond with inexperience, it doesn’t usually inspire trust.

  5. Upward inflections – sometimes called a ‘high rising terminal’, this is a lift in intonation that makes a statement sound like a question. It can put doubt into the mind of the listener. Downward inflections at the end of sentences or statements give a feeling of assured certainty. We can believe and trust in the speaker and are less likely to question things.

  6. Pace – too fast or slow and once again it’s heavy on effort for the listener. Mirroring the pace and energy of the customer can be useful except if they are rushing to get off the call and you’re struggling to get your words out quickly enough. Try to slow the pace a little without stressing the customer and pick up on their cues as to when they are ready to leave the call.

  7. Pauses – “nature abhors a silence” as the saying goes. Often if there’s a gap in conversation we feel the need to fill it. But when explaining something or in public speaking, it’s important to give the audience time to take it in, and consider if they have understood or want to ask questions. Pauses last a couple of seconds, and are not the same as leaving long silences during phone conversations.

  8. Posture – how you hold yourself has a huge effect on the way you sound and the way you’re perceived. In a contact centre, the advisor with their head in their hands gives off signals of a failing call. The pacing salesman shows signs of nervous energy. Take a leaf out of Amy Cuddy’s book and stand or sit using a strong, confident but relaxed body pose. It will influence how you feel. In challenging situations keep both feet on the ground and regulate your breathing as it will help to soothe your mind and strengthen your voice.

Janina Heron