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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Public Speaking: No Substitute For Eye Contact

We know that our two eyes are intended to be used for far more than the routine and passive viewing of objects, people and events. They play a critical and indispensable role in effective communication, building productive relationships and proving one's ability as a leader. It would be folly to underestimate the power of the eyes.

In her column on careers in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, Joann Lublin wrote about an improvisational acting troupe in Chicago that coaches managers on how to give better presentations. The columnist reported that the participants were given "gentle pointers to help them alter their nervous habits, poor posture or soft voice. A woman too tense to look into listeners' eyes was urged to gaze at foreheads."

Senior voice coach Susan Berkley criticizes very strongly - quite correctly, in my opinion - this last piece of advice, calling it "disastrous if followed." Writing in her ezine The Voice Coach, Susan pointedly observes: "Try having a conversation with a friend or colleague while staring at her forehead. They'll think you've become possessed!"

"When a speaker fears eye contact," she continues, "it's really a symptom of a deeper problem: a rejection of affection. Phobic speakers will often say they feel shy because they are afraid the audience will reject them. This is a delusion.

"Audience members tend to be optimistic and receptive until they have reason to believe otherwise. With the exception of the occasional jerk, most audience members are eager to hear what a speaker has to say and grateful for the speaker’s contribution.

"Why, then, the fear of rejection? Psychologists call it projection. The speaker is actually rejecting the audience, before the audience has a chance to reject him or her. When we are afraid to look someone in the eyes, we are also rejecting any affection and friendship they might be trying to send our way. This process is unconscious, but it can generate feelings of guilt and even shame, causing us to avert our eyes even more."

Apart from the quality of the content of your talk itself, eye contact is undoubtedly the key factor in gaining your audience's attention and keeping it. And it's no wonder. In a very real sense, the eyes are the windows to the soul.

Is your speech or presentation a burden, a bothersome but unavoidable chore that you're secretly anxious to get over and done with the moment it's practically possible? Or do you have a sincere interest and desire to help the folk you're trying to communicate with?

You can't have it both ways. There's simply no way of faking it.

(For more well-meaning but potentially dangerous advice on speaking in public that's often dished out by so-called "experts", see here.)

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