(By Karen Houghs)
“Become aware of times when you make eye contact in a casual, enjoyable conversation. It’s easy with one person. How does it feel? What do you notice about your enjoyment, your connection to that person, to the interest they take in your comments? Now translate that into the next presentation you do for more than one person.“
For some reason, the old rules use every trick possible to…well, trick you. If something makes you uncomfortable, the rules immediately look for a workaround, some way to avoid the issue.
So here’s a shocker–attempting eye contact can make some people pretty nervous. Therefore, we have the awful Rule to Break #1, “Scan the back wall to simulate eye contact.”
Over the last six years, I’ve been taking an informal poll. It’s entirely anecdotal and has no official record. But in my classes, hundreds of people are subscribing to this really bad rule. At least 70 percent of the people I’ve asked verify that they’ve been told about a trick for eye contact, and it’s this: If looking into the faces and eyes of the audience makes you nervous, just scan the back wall or look right over their heads, and no one will be able to tell the difference. The audience will think you’re making eye contact with the row behind them.
What’s the funniest part of this? When I ask people whether they think this technique works, they practically shout me down with “No!” They go on to tell me stories of watching someone use the technique and how fake it is. Even in a huge room with hundreds of audience members, they could always tell when someone was faking eye contact.
It all goes back to making an authentic connection with the audience. An audience knows–can feel–that you don’t really want to look at them and that you’re skimming through without actually building a bridge to anyone.
So what’s the answer?
If you really do become nervous looking into the faces of other people when you present, I have several ideas I’d like to share with you.
Plant a friend
There’s nothing like a smiling, familiar face. Choose a friend you trust, who puts you at ease and won’t make you more nervous. Have a friend you trust attend your presentation so that you know you have a safe haven in the sea of strangers.
Just remember not to direct your entire presentation to them. Once you feel strong from their faithful glance, share some of that goodwill with another audience member. They might become your newest smiling friend.
Practice in conversation
Become aware of times when you make eye contact in a casual, enjoyable conversation. It’s easy with one person. How does it feel? What do you notice about your enjoyment, your connection to that person, to the interest they take in your comments? Now translate that into the next presentation you do for more than one person.
Make eye contact, and then take a break
Give yourself small goals. Decide that you’ll make eye contact for one full sentence with three people in a row. Then spend the next three to four sentences looking at the back wall, at your flip chart, or at your smiling friend. That break looking at a neutral place will allow you to breathe, calm your nerves, and then try it with a few more people. If you need a bit more time to gather yourself, walk over to the podium for a sip of water or to briefly consult your notes. That gives you a chance to look away, keep breathing, and even be silent for a moment.
Uh-oh. Now I’ve done it. I’ve mentioned the podium. That takes us to the really bad Rule to Break #2, “Stand behind the podium.” If you’ve come this far, you already know how valuable your body is in making your presentations absolutely fabulous.
So don’t hide behind a podium.
A podium is just a big chunk of boring. It cuts off your ability to connect, influence, and engage with your audience. I’ve talked about how people are influenced by your body language. They more readily trust and connect with someone they can see in totality. And even if you are being authentic, a podium makes you a talking head. There’s no getting around it. It anchors you, drags down your energy, and separates you from your audience.
If you need something to hold on to, use your notecards or the remote. Feel free to walk back and forth to a table when you need to refer to notes, sip water, or change a slide manually. And if the doggone podium has been planted right in the middle of the stage (you can imagine how I feel about that), ask if it can be moved to the side. Find out if it can be removed altogether. Worst case, lean against it and walk in front of it.
Don’t let the podium be the main event–you are!
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