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The “O” Factor and audience trust

by Daniel Kingsley

Oxytocin public speaking trust

Please forgive the kitten and the puppy.  There are already far too many cute kittens and puppies on the internet and I apologise for adding another two to the pile. But they’re here to make a (fairly) serious scientific point.

What do you see when you see this image?

I see two animals that feel very comfortable together, are relaxed together and trust each other.  Perhaps even two animals that are bonded.

The main bonding hormone in humans (and in some animals) is Oxytocin.  It’s what helps to bond mothers to babies and also adults in love. It’s also secreted whenever we are with those we trust – including when an audience trusts a speaker.  If you’re speaking to an audience as a leader or a presenter, you want plenty of Oxytocin happening, in them and in you.

What does Oxytocin do?

The short answer is, like many hormones, it does lots of things.  For our purposes, the most important thing is that oxytocin reduces fear and increases trust.  It’s easy see that as a leader or a speaker this is going to be a seriously good thing both for you and those you’re communicating with.

A very informative study using oxytocin nasal sprays and a risky investment game was performed by Dr. Michael Kosfeld and others. The researchers found that the participants who inhaled oxytocin spray were more likely to invest their money than the control group who did not receive any externally administered oxytocin. In fact, it was found that those receiving oxytocin demonstrated the “highest level of trust” twice as often as the control group.

Another study had people look at photos and rate how trustworthy and attractive they found the people in them.  The group who had inhaled an oxytocin spray rated the people in the images as much more trustworthy and attractive than those that had not.

An interesting third study by Dr. Thomas Baumgartner and others indicates that oxytocin reduces the fear of social betrayal in humans, which would naturally improve speaker and audience confidence.

How can we have more Oxytocin in our audiences?

So by now I’m guessing that you don’t need much persuading that it would be great for both us and our audience to be swimming in great lakes of Oxytocin – prompting the next question: how do we do that?

One way would be to give every audience member a nice long hug.  Research has shown that when people embrace warmly for a substantial period of time (at least 20 seconds) both parties start to secrete oxytocin.

Another way would be to have them stare at lots of pictures of kittens and puppies – still other research has found that when we look at pictures of animals or humans that make us go “ahhhhh” we start secreting oxytocin and start to feel warm, fuzzy and trusting.  (I told you the picture of the kitten and puppy wasn’t completely gratuitous).

If you don’t want to go down the hugging or kittens route, there is another way.  And if you’ve read some of our other articles you perhaps won’t be surprised by what it is.  Eye contact.  Specifically, prolonged soft-focussed eye contact.

Kerstin Uväs-Moberg, M.D., Ph.D, a world authority on oxytocin, has concluded through her research that extended eye contact can bring about oxytocin release.  Stephen Porges has concluded that extended eye contact activates the brain’s Social Engagement System, making us feel more connected and trusting, which strongly suggests that oxytocin is one of the routes by which this occurs.

A helpful positive feedback loop

Not only does eye contact increase oxytocin, it has been found that the secretion of oxytocin increases the amount of eye contact people make, setting up a virtuous circle.  The more you are able to make eye contact with those you are speaking to, the more they will secrete oxytocin, making them more willing to make eye contact with you, bringing about all those benefits of bonding, trust and reduction of fear.

Our experience at Presence has long been that using prolonged soft eye contact with your audience can fairly quickly create a feeling of trust and community within an audience.  The research above helps to explain why.

If you’d like some notes on how to make “the right sort” of eye contact, download our free guide to authentic public speaking or drop us a line.

And as always, I really value your comments, notes and experience.  Let me know what you think in the comments box below.

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