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Eye Contact . . .You!

#75 - 08/01/2005

"You can't fake listening. It shows." – Raquel Welch, Actor

Take responsibility for the reception as well as the transmission of your speech. Many, if not most speakers, get all caught up in their half of the equation - the talking part. They don’t realize that to be an effective communicator one has to speak and listen at the same time.

Think about normal conversation. You can tell if someone is paying attention to you, listening to you even as they are speaking, can't you? You can certainly tell when someone is not listening - if they just prattle on regardless of whether you are interested in what they have to say - we would call them a "bore" once they're out of earshot. To be a good conversationalist means to be sensitive to the other person - to adjust to them. It's a little game of catch, we play. First you say something and then I add to it or ask for more, and you say something else. Isn't that how it works?

Well, why should speaking to an audience be any different? Simply because we are now faced with a dozen or a hundred or a thousand other people rather than one? In either situation the definition of a bore still holds true. We all know when we are listening to a bore, but do we know when we are being one? And yes, I'm afraid everyone at one time or another has been a bore. I recall several occasions when I have gotten caught up in some story of mine - running on at some length - and noticing a vacant look in the eyes of my listeners. It was rather like speaking to a school of fish. Sometimes I could catch myself in time and avert disaster, but often I babbled on, clueless, and left thinking everyone loved me as much as I loved myself.

What to do? How can we hone our senses and lift our awareness of our audience's state of mind as we speak? The simplest answer is "look at them." Yep, good old eye contact is step one - that's why it's the biggest drum in the Toastmasters band. If you don't look your audience in the eyes, you can never know for sure that they're still there. But wait. Even eye contact is no guarantee, is it? I have friends (one or two) who can look me straight in the pupils and bore me to death. Eye contact isn't enough. I've always considered "I contact. . . " a sentence fragment. It needs an object to be complete. "I contact YOU," is much better.

In order to complete the eye contact sentence, we need to Listen as well as look at the other people. Here's an exercise I conduct in my workshops that you can try before your next manual speech at Toastmasters. It should help you get in touch with your audience and put you in a receiving frame of mind while you transmit your speech. Before you begin, stand quietly and simply look at your audience for ten seconds. Move from one set of eyes to the next and try to see where they are at that moment.

Often we look at other people with the intention of finding out what they think of us. We treat other people's eyes as mirrors. This is one reason we fail to remember someone's name thirty seconds after meeting them - because as we shook their hand and they said their name, we were being self-conscious, wondering if this stranger would approve of us. Once we're aware of this habit, we can overcome it, putting a little extra effort into listening, paying attention and perhaps repeating their name immediately. "How do you do, Hilda?"

That's what needs to happen at the beginning of our speeches. We need to shift our focus from ourselves to our audience. If we can succeed in becoming "other conscious" it will reduce our self consciousness and we'll be more comfortable and confident. At the same time, our audience will feel more included in our speech, and they will listen better as well. Best of all, when their interest begins to flag, we'll pick up on it and be able to adjust - change tactics. We'll be aware enough to ask them questions and get immediate feedback: "Are you following this?" "Do you understand?"

Successful public speaking has been described as "a conversation, amplified." That's a good definition as far as it goes, but it's mouth-oriented. Amplified means louder and that's a mouth function. I also like definitions that stress connections to the ear or the whole body - speaking is like playing music or jazz or dancing. A jazz musician in a trio must listen closely to the others in order to make a coherent piece of music. Dancers must be extremely sensitive to the motions of their partners as well as to the music. For speakers, the clues we want from the audience are smiles, nods, and that glint of interested understanding in their eyes. If the audience is staring off into space, reading or sleeping, you'll know they're not getting it and you'd better change tactics.

Next time you step to the lectern do so with the understanding that your speech will be a collaboration with the audience. Deliver your speech all the way - don't just leave it on the doorstep. Make sure it gets all the way home to where they live in that room behind their eyes. Be willing to take responsibility for their reception, their understanding of your ideas. After all, if they weren't there, would you be?

 

Something to Ponder


"Of all the skills of leadership, listening is the most valuable—and one of the least understood. Most captains of industry listen only sometimes, and they remain ordinary leaders. But a few, the great ones, never stop listening. That's how they get word before anyone else of unseen problems and opportunities."

– Peter Nulty
National Business Hall of Fame
Fortune Magazine