Part 1 - Delivery
I chose to devote a separate chapter to eye contact because it is so very important. Your eyes are the focal point of communication; we look at each otherís eyes.
Your eyes tell whether youíre sincere, honest, personable, or nervous. They also tell the audience how much you care about them. Itís annoying to try to communicate with someone who refuses to look at you. You also imply that if you must keep your eyes glued to your manuscript, you didnít take the time to prepare properly. Either the audience or the message simply wasnít important enough to you to inspire you to rehearse.
Listeners want you to look at them as often as possible. They want to feel like they are influencing what you say. They do this by giving you nonverbal clues as to how theyíre reacting to what you say. Quizzical looks, nodding heads, smiles, and withdrawn postures are all forms of audience feedback. You absolutely must look at your audience to gather this feedback data.
Ideally, speakers should maintain constant eye contact with their audience; this is virtually impossible for a lengthy presentation. A good compromise is to be so familiar with your speech that your eyes enjoy great independence, and need only gaze down occasionally to gather new thoughts. Speaking completely without notes is one possible solution, which I will comment on and question in Chapter 7. For now the key is to be conversant with your notes, as you have prepared them for delivery, complete with your visual markings for interpretation. This way you gather the greatest amount of data during each downward glance.
Frequency of eye contact is closely related to sincerity as perceived by your listeners. This fact was established in a study by John Wills.1 Wills found that speakers rated as ďsincereĒ looked at the audience an average of 63.4% of the time. Those considered ďinsincereĒ established eye contact only 20.8% of the time. Sincerity is an invaluable quality in contemporary speakers; special note should be made of the direct impact effective eye contact has in communicating this quality.
The audience needs to see you if you are to make the best use of your speech. The lighting should be bright enough that you can be seen clearly and without strain from all sections of the room. This applies when you use slides as well. Donít stand in the dark speaking to an audience who canít see you. Have as much light on you as possible, while still allowing the slides to be utilized effectively.
Overhead lighting at the podium can create distractingly bizarre shadows on your face. You can test for the shadows by viewing another person at the podium, or by having someone look at you from the middle of the room Ė or even by holding a mirror in front of you while at the lectern, something that many veteran speakers do. If changes canít be made in the lighting, try moving the podium forward or backward a few feet to find a better spot. The method of correcting poor lighting isnít important: the results are.
Be certain the audience can see your face and your eyes. Make certain that you can see theirs for that all-important feedback. Have sufficient audience lighting so that you can read their reactions both to you and your message.
Eye glasses can be a barrier to communication if they hide a significant portion of your eyes from audience view. Heavy rimmed glasses make it very difficult to see a speakerís eyes, as do photosensitive lenses that darken under lighting. The half-lens glasses tempt speakers to look down their noses at the audience, and should be avoided.
Glasses, like everything you wear, are a manifestation of your personality. Your personal taste will usually prevail when selecting style, color, and the shape of the frame. However, if you plan to make frequent public appearances, you should take that into consideration the next time you visit the optometrist. Try on glasses that allow your eyes to be seen from a distance. Many professionals use contact lenses. Others use large lenses with narrow frames and no strong tinting.
Do not leave your glasses behind in an attempt to look better, or to allow more audience eye contact if that means you give up the ability to see your listeners. It is imperative that you be able to keep your audience in focus.
In spite of what you may have been taught in speech courses, there is no single method of eye contact that is best. I have heard speech coaches instruct speakers to begin at the extreme left of the audience, slowing scanning the listeners while turning to the extreme right, then to repeat the process again from the left. Another advised speakers to look just above or just below the audienceís heads in an effort to avoid the direct eye contact that may add to your anxieties. And still another suggests selecting a single happy face and locking in on that person to get ďgood vibrations.Ē
Nonsense! Use good common sense. Distribute as much eye contact as possible to all parts of your audience. Be careful not to neglect the extreme left and right, the rear and the front of the room. Look people directly in the eye; how else can you read their reaction? Donít lock in on one individual for prolonged periods, but donít hesitate to look directly at those creating unnecessary distractions, such as side conversations. That will usually put an end to it. Be in command without being abrasive. Be people-sensitive. Let your audience feel as though you are speaking to each and every one of them individually.
The two chapters on physical reinforcement and eye contact cover vital areas of interpersonal communication. We know so much about nonverbal communication and yet so little. Research abounds and people-watching has become a favorite pastime. Manwatching, by Desmond Morris, is an interesting exploration of body language. Kinesics, the study of body language, will continue to provide useful insight into mankindís nonverbal communication. For the contemporary spokesperson, it should be remembered that while before an audience you are never totally silent Ö vocally silent, perhaps, but not physically.