We speak in front of people. We pitch ideas or sell things or report or instruct or motivate. We speak in front of people and that is a thing we do.
This is the first thing in this book about that.
Let’s talk about different aspects of presentation. The first are the scary windows to the soul. Let’s talk about your eyes.
“When you speak in front of people, it’s important to maintain eye contact at all times”. Maintain Eye Contact.
I agree, if you want to look like a robot. If you want to look like a scary robot, it is important to maintain eye contact at all times. If you would like to be a character from Children of the Corn or Village of the Damned, it is important to hold eye contact at all times.
I have also been told, “Holding eye contact with someone makes you look confident”.
I think it depends on the degree of “holding”. Holding and then locking and then holding eye contact with someone, in my opinion, makes you look super scary! Holding eye contact alienates your audience if it’s too much. It becomes a contrived and uncomfortable assault on personal space.
Think of the times when YOU are in an audience watching someone on stage. Imagine it is you that a speaker picks to hold eye contact with for a short while. Ruh-roh, suddenly you are way uncomfortable and feel singled out and wish they would look away. You are thinking, “Look away! Stop looking at me! Look away please! Stop looking at me scary robot man! OK, turn away now! NO? OK, zombie dude, turn and fucking look at someone else! Now!… Thank the Jesus!” They look away and pick on someone else with their futuristic laser-eyes.
In presentation, we are told to maintain eye contact because it was observed that, out of fear, we tend to not look anyone in the eyes enough. And by doing so, by darting our eyes around, we show our fear. I believe this is true. Anyone who cannot hold eye contact significantly long enough shows fear and a lack of character and conviction. Ask the Latin Kings or a Doberman. They know. So we overcompensate by training people to have a lot of eye contact. The instruction isn’t really, “Choose someone to create eye contact with and then maintain it.”, No, the instruction usually jumps right to “Maintain eye contact”, or “Hold eye contact!”, as if gaining eye contact in the first place is a given and just “is”.
So my theory is that there is a middle ground that’s not so little that it shows fear, and not so much that it alienates and scares someone like something from The Outer Space!
The specificity of the middle ground approach is always a bit tougher to find, but let’s give it a shot. I say approach, also, because the way you manage your eyes during a presentation is as relevant as the amount of time you spend with an audience member in regard to them.
Let’s talk about the amount of time you “look at someone” during a presentation, first. Let’s take a look at how little it actually takes to alleviate the burden of the observer’s need for eye contact. It takes just a little eye contact to make the audience feel connected. It takes, merely an “acknowledgement” to feel as if you have been connected with.
Think of a crowded tavern, and you are at the bar waiting to get a drink along with a bunch of other people. You have a 10 dollar bill in your hand and you don’t want to raise it so high in the air as to look like a fucking A-hole, but you also want to be noticed so your arm is slightly bent and you are looking toward the bartender. You want a drink and yes, the bar is busy, but yes, you want a cocktail! The bartender finishes making a drink and, lo and behold, he looks kind of your way. And then, he sees you and has a slight motion with the eyes or the slightest nod and turns and does something else. The entire “eye contact transaction” took about a HALF a second, but the world and the context has changed in regard to you feeling allright standing there. Suddenly it actually doesn’t matter that you get your drink RIGHT NOW, because you felt in that half-second you were attended to. You were acknowledged and suddenly you feel as if you will be taken care of in due time. You put your arm down a bit and relax. In a half-second you made an affirming connection. You feel OK now. The bartender (and this is the middle ground word I’m going to use a bit) “visited” you with his eyes. This simple gesture on the bartender’s part not only took care of the “wait” issue, but also created an amiable perception from you, the customer. You are now OK
I would like you to think about the concept of “visiting” someone with your eyes when you are speaking in front of others. Just a visit, a check-in, an acknowledgment that you are there and that you are “attending to” the audience. It’s as if you are saying, “I am a human being communicating with other human beings, and I can demonstrate that with a slight visit to one or another of you with my eyes. I’m stopping and visiting you during my presentation”.
With one half-second look, you can say, “Hi, how are you?,” Your resting on them with your eyes for a second communicates, “Do you mind if I pay you a kindly visit while I speak”? It is kind, as if you are speaking to a friend over coffee, not Speakerbot 4000 peering through your brain with a cold stare maintenance of eye contact. And it’s not Darty McDarty, scared to hold for longer than a nano-second with someone’s eyes because of extreme fear.
It’s a visit. A kind visit for just a bit.
So how long is a kind visit with your eyes? Two or three seconds, a half-sentence or so. Or maybe longer or shorter depending on how long you’d like to connect with that person. The “kindly” is a powerful tool to not forget. Kindly means just that. If you think a kindly visit in the way that you would your brother or sister over a beer, then you have a less confronting and more emotional, empathetic, and disarming demeanor. Practice knowing that you can do this. It’s just a visit, and then you move on.
What does this do for the rest of the audience, who doesn’t get a visit from you during your presentation? It creates empathy. They live vicariously through the person being attended to in your disarming manner. They “feel” as if they are being talked to. They certainly aren’t thinking that the speaker is darting from one person to another, afraid to make any real connection, nor are they feeling sorry for the spectator being LOOKED AT for SO long because someone is “maintaining eye contact” with them. They see a confident, emotionally aware, and warm speaker conveying a thought to a person as if this person were in his/her living room. They have felt the connection.
More importantly through this, the speaker, early on, conveys an overall sense of well- being with the audience in his/her warmth, confidence, and acknowledgment. Someone who “visits” their audience while presenting with their eyes looks more at ease, so it puts the audience at ease with them. The audience doesn’t worry about them up there. The speaker appears comfortable and at ease. So now, the audience feels as if they can actually listen, listen to what the speaker has to say. And they are more interested.
It’s someone talking to them and with them, not AT them.