Eye Contact in Public Speaking
I live in New York, as do most of my clients (I do phone/Skype coaching for out-of-
towners). But every time I visit family in California and I find myself in a supermarket and the checker looks at me with a huge grin and says, ‘HOW YA DOIN’ TODAY?’ it shocks me. My natural New York suspicion kicks in and I immediately wonder: Does this person belong to a cult? Is she working on commission? Maybe she knows me and I didn’t recognize her. Sounds silly, but in my day-to-day life in New York, eye contact is not all that common.
My favorite mentors (and friends and bosses and especially customer service personnel) are the ones that look at me. That sounds silly, too. But unfortunately it’s a fact of modern life: eyeball to eyeball, we connect less. (Don’t get me started on those of you who text during one of my motivational speeches…)The good news is that good live speaking skills have increased in value.
Ever watch a beginning speaker remember his memorized speech by looking anywhere but at you? His eyes shift to the ceiling or down at the floor, or they seem to be focused on the middle distance, like he’s reading from an invisible screen.
How did you feel when you saw a great speaker? Didn’t their eye contact with you imply some kind of affinity, almost like they knew you, like they were speaking directly to you?
Sure, eye contact takes guts. The heart of people’s fear of public speaking is linked to a caveman’s fear of pairs of eyes looking at him from the gloom beyond the campfire. All the more reason to engage with the audience. Sometimes those eyes in the gloom turn out to be just raccoons instead of tigers.
Find the friendly or familiar faces to start. Plant some in the audience if you have to. Later you’ll find the new faces and seek understanding in their eyes.
Ask questions with your eyes. It could be your opening question or it could be the (spoken or unspoken) check-in question you ask at the end of a thought/pargraph: ‘Does that make sense?’