We’ve all heard that eye contact is essential for successful public speaking. Sometimes, however, looking audience members in the eye isn’t easy, especially when nervousness and self-consciousness hijack our thinking.
Recently, I coached a client who had a severe case of eye-avoidedness. It was the first issue he brought up. And of course, I saw it in action immediately. Even though we sat in armchairs no more than 4 feet apart, I’d estimate that he avoided looking at me about 80% of the time.
He knew this was a problem both in presentations and interpersonal communication, but he had no idea how to overcome his shyness. And that, in fact, turned out to be an important clue for me. He mentioned that he was an introvert. One speaking trait introverts sometimes have is a desire to “go away” in their own mind and fashion a carefully structured and gift-wrapped statement or response. In the rough-and-tumble of conversations and Q & A, however, we seldom have the luxury of doing this.
Before we tried an exercise I had in mind, I gave him the two reasons why I believe strong eye contact is critical to successful speaking situations:
1. You will never exert influence on people you don’t look in the eye! When was the last time you were persuaded by someone who wouldn’t look at you while he or she was talking?
2. People are easier to get a response from than the back wall. I often hear from my trainees, “But if I look anyone right in the eye, I’ll forget what I’m saying!” At this point I usually respond: “Which do you think is going to give you something back, the ceiling or the person you’re talking to?”
Our listeners should give us energy–not suck it out of us like an audience of vampires! Speaking to “the window of the soul” (the eyes) as you say something important to people, and observing their response, should be a delightful activity rather than a painful one. People want you to look at them when you talk. If you do, they’ll trust you more.
As it turned out, the exercise we practiced next turned out to be even more helpful for this client than I anticipated. Here it is:
I had prepared around 20 impromptu speech topics, which I folded and placed in an envelope. My client had to reach in, choose a slip and read the topic, then look up at me and start talking about it. Understand: I gave him no time to prepare. (No nicely wrapped speech package possible here!)
The topics were intentionally ones that he would have no expertise in; and in fact, each topic had no right or wrong answer. For instance, they included, “What do you like about the United Nations, and why?” And: “What do you think was the most interesting ancient civilization?,” and so on.
For a minute or two each time, my client spoke on each of four items he’d selected. And I’d say that 90% of his responses were delivered looking directly at me, with rock-solid eye contact!
You see, he couldn’t “go away” and marshal his thoughts and relevant data on the subject, for his professional experience hadn’t given him any special knowledge. The exercise was simple and clear: he had to look his listeners in the eye even if he wasn’t sure what he was about to say. His job was to reach his listener with what he was saying, not fashion the perfect answer.
The exercise is a sure-fire confidence builder, and I’ve used it many times for that purpose. But it was nice to know that it works well as a tool for strengthening eye contact, too.
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GARY GENARD is an internationally known speech coach and corporate trainer. A former professional actor, he is the founder of Boston-based Public Speaking International, one of the world’s premiere presentation skills and media training companies. PSI offers communication skills improvement including public speaking training, executive speech coaching, speech improvement training, presentation skills and using PowerPoint, sales presentation training, and media appearance training. Public Speaking International can be found online at http://PublicSpeakingInternational.com.
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