Building rapport  - building harmony

"Building rapport" is the name given to the process of creating an understanding and harmonious bond between yourself and someone else.

When rapport is present you feel at ease, happy and comfortable in the other person's company. Your conversation flows effortlessly without any awkward pausing. You've "clicked"! You feel understood, respected and valued. Loved.

Rapport and public speaking

rapport [rap-pore]

a sympathetic relationship or understanding [French]

Related or similar words - bond, relationship, link, tie, sympathy, harmony, affinity, empathy

For the public speaker that someone else you're seeking to build rapport with is not a single person. It's your audience and good rapport with them ensures your message will be actively listened to.

What happens without rapport

Have you ever stood in front of an audience and known you weren't being listened to? Have you watched yawns being stifled, caught people peeking at their phones or muttering quietly to their neighbors?

I have and the more I've tried to rescue the situation, often the worse it got.

So what was going on?

I get it right most of the time and count myself as a good "people" person. I like people and mostly they like me. However when they'd rather I stopped talking immediately  I am obviously missing something critical!

With reflection and analysis I discovered that something was building rapport.

What happens with rapport

Rapport is what happens when you have everything in harmony. Your speech is right. The audience receives it well. They enjoy listening to it as much as you enjoy delivering it. However that happy harmonious state doesn't occur without conscious effort.

Elements of audience rapport

The very first thing I learned was that building rapport meant focusing on the audience. Not me, but my audience.

I had "to get over myself".

To achieve the synergy I pictured in my imagination I needed to tailor my speech to fit who was listening to it.

Understanding your audience

I needed to know:

  • who my audience was.  I needed to know their age range, the gender mix, their ethnicity, shared cultural values, religious or group affiliations, primary language, educational level, and how much they knew about my topic already ...
  • why they were there to listen to me. Were they there because attendance was compulsory, voluntary (out of interest), to have a problem solved, or  to show support ...
  • what their concerns were.  I needed to find out if the audience carried any specific issues around my topic? Were they neutral, in agreement or against it?
  • what their expectations were. Did the expect a formal presentation, an opportunity to ask questions and get answers, or an opportunity to extend their knowledge?
  • what their vocabulary was. Were they familiar with the specialized vocabulary (jargon) around my topic? If I used it would I alienate them?
  • what their general beliefs might be. Were they at variance with my topic? Or were they in-line or congruent?
  • what they had in common with me. What do we share? Are our  background experiences or living situations similar?

Then using all that information I could shape my material to meet them.

First impressions count

The other ingredient crucial to the mix was truly understanding that first impressions count. A speaker has approximately 5-10 seconds from the time they stand up to talk to lay the foundation for empathy or good will.

In summary ...

Rapport builders are:

  • dressing and grooming appropriately for the occasion
  • being organized, ready with suitable content
  • demonstrating in your opening statements that you know who you're talking to because you've done your homework
  • using inclusive language - "we" rather than "I"
  • identifying and emphasizing your common ground respectfully and sincerely
  • avoiding jargon unless everyone knows what you're talking about
  • showing that you're human too by sharing personal experience in the stories you tell
  • being mindful of body language and making eye contact
  • appearing confident, positive, in control and open
  • understanding the impact of your vocal delivery

The gift exchange between audience and speaker

Having an audience is a privilege. Their gift to you is their presence. The gift we give in return is recognition.

Carefully building rapport carries a potent message: "I see you. I understand and respect you." It creates trust and where there's trust there is willingness to follow, to listen.

In essence building rapport is about identifying similarity. When we show an audience that we are like them we find a mutual starting place for the shared journey of the speech.


I discovered a couple of gems as part of this process.

The first was the more I focused on the audience and their needs, the less self conscious and fearful I became as a speaker.

The second falls into the category a friend calls: "startling observations on the obvious".

It is much easier to give speeches or presentations to people we intuitively understand. These are people like ourselves and the people we make our friends.

To build rapport with people who don't share the same interests, background or beliefs we have to step out of our shoes, out of our comfort zone and into theirs! It's harder but I think the rewards in understanding are worth the effort.