Eye Contact: Why?

Try this experiment. Call your dog. Where does he look? More than likely, your dog will look toward your eyes. Now try one more experiment. Get your dog’s attention and then just stare at him. Don’t say anything and don’t do anything. What happens? Chances are your dog will begin to feel uncomfortable. You’ll see that he will look away from you as if he is in trouble, or maybe he’ll begin to whine like my dog did.

What all of this proves is that eye contact is universal among all creatures. It also proves that eye contact is extremely powerful. So much can be said with just a look. Even your dog understands that just staring at him is an extremely aggressive act.

This is why using eye contact correctly in your presentations is so important. You use your voice, and perhaps some visual aids, to communicate your message, but when you make eye contact with your audience, you are letting them into your emotional world. Eye contact is so ingrained in all living creatures that our subconscious mind interprets the many emotions displayed in a speakers eyes.

Here are two examples.

  1. During an experiment done at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, the conductors altered the rabbit on a Trix box so it was looking straight at the adult subjects. When two boxes where shown to the subjects, they were more likely to choose the boxes with the character looking straight at them.
  2. An experiment done by the University of Chicago and University of Maryland, twenty men where shown two identical pictures of an attractive woman. The only difference between the photos was the pupils were artificially enlarged on one. When asked which picture seemed more attractive, the majority of the men picked the one with the enlarged pupils, although the vast majority of those men couldn’t explain why.

Through these and many other experiments, we see that eye contact works on a subconscious level and is extremely powerful when used in the public speaking arena. The audience feels that the speaker is more confident, authoritative, honest and trustworthy when they meet their gaze.

Eye contact also helps the speaker. If you are speaking to a group and not using eye contact, your field of vision will not be concentrated, opening you up to any and all distractions around the room. If you are concentrated on a set of eyes, the likelihood of being distracted is diminished significantly, because your field of vision will be concentrated. You will tend to feel more confident, although this may not be the case for a beginner. When a speaker is not used to speaking to groups, he may feel a little uncomfortable looking into other people’s eyes, but after some practice he will become more comfortable with it and as a result will have a very powerful tool in his public speaking tool box.

The Notes Debate

In Project 3 of the Toastmasters Competent Communicator manual, we are told “Strive not to use notes.” With this one statement and whether they intended to or not, Toastmasters International has entered the growing debate among speakers around the world; the debate over whether we as speakers should use notes during our presentations. New speakers in Toastmasters are almost always tethered to their notes and as they gain more confidence, they become less dependent on them. The debate comes into Toastmasters at Project 3 as the fifth bullet point under “Your Assignment.”

There are two sides to this debate. One says that not using notes is a relatively recent development in public speaking. The proponents of using notes point out some of the best speakers in history used notes. Abraham Lincoln Held an envelope with bullet notes written on it during the Gettysburg Address, Winston Churchill was famous for writing “Stage directions” to himself on a copy of his speech, even today politicians and TV personalities use Teleprompters.

Opponents of using notes give us two very good reasons. The first and, as it would seem, the main reason is that it hinders the speaker from making eye contact with the audience. After all, if you’re looking at your notes, then you’re not making eye contact and eye contact is essential to connecting with your audience. The second reason is notes give the impression that you have not prepared for the presentation.

Taking the second reason first, let me ask the obvious question. If you don’t use notes and you get stuck, how prepared do you look then? A reader may say, “If you prepared enough, you wouldn’t get stuck,” This is a very fare point, but it’s not always the case. Unforeseen circumstances do happen. This is the reason why I take a third position in this debate; the Both-And position.

My opinion is that we should “Strive” to not use notes, but we shouldn’t kill our public speaking reputation over it. Commit your bullet points to memory. There are many cool ways you can do it. I came across this video with Mike Michaelowicz witch shows you one way to memorize a speech in five minutes. After you’ve committed your speech to memory, practice it as much as possible. This second point becomes difficult for those of us who are not retired and have families, so I’ve added one more step. Unless you are absolutely sure that you have all of the bullet points down cold, write them out in large print, so you can read them from about six to eight feet away. The bullet points should take up a maximum of two sheets that you can lay side by side on a lectern or table. Then you can simply look down for a second or two to find your place and move on with your presentation. One important point to remember is that with the large print, you have no reason to draw attention to your notes by picking them up.

We as Toastmasters strive to not use notes at all, but the fact is if we need them, we need them and it’s OK as long as we use them correctly. If you follow the simple instructions above, you’ll be able to keep the all-important eye contact with your audience and also have the confidence you need to remember your speech.



The Many Facets of Toastmasters: Listening

Listening is not an immediately obvious benefit of Toastmasters, but it’s easy to realize when you think about it. After all, someone has to listen to other members speak. However, our listening practice does not stop at merely listening to speeches.

There are several roles in every Toastmasters meeting which are entirely dedicated to listening. The Ah-Counter and grammarian must listen to every word spoken throughout the meeting and pick out every filler word and violation of grammar as well as the extraordinary uses of words and phrases. The evaluator must listen to their assigned speech closely enough to be able to pick out what made the speech understandable and clear as well as parts that may need work. The General Evaluator must also listen to the entire meeting to pick out what made that day’s meeting effective and what could make the meeting and club better in the future. Although, you could argue the Timer’s job is not entirely about listening, there is a definite listening aspect to it. If the Timer falls asleep at the switch the club will end up with an inaccurate record of the speech and Table Topic times.

There is a very strong emphasis on listening in Toastmasters because Toastmasters International realizes that listening is a major skill, perhaps the major skill, needed for leadership. Many of the greatest leaders in the world were known for their listening skills. There is a story about George Washington and how he used to sit and listen to his officers argue over possible courses of action to be taken during the Revolutionary War. After everything was said, Washington would take everything he listened to both sides say and then make his decision.

In our daily lives, listening is no less important. According to an article written by Dawn Rosenberg McKay, a career planning coach, in 1991 the US Department of Labor identified listening as one of the three foundational skills essential for those entering the work force. In her December 26, 2015 article on About.com, “Listening Skills: Why You Need to be an Active Listener,” she also pointed out that your listening skills don’t necessarily depend on your ability to hear, because each are separate abilities. “It is possible to have one but not the other. Someone who is hearing impaired can be a great listener if he or she pays attention to the information someone conveys to them regardless of how it is being communicated.”

In Toastmasters we can learn how to become great listeners ourselves. We have every opportunity to do so. With our new skills, we can become better leaders and better followers and we can improve all of the relationships we have, both personal and professional.

The Many Facets of Toastmasters: Networking

Over the past couple of weeks, for two weeks today in fact, I have been becoming reacquainted with one of the greatest reasons to become a Toastmaster; Networking. Two Tuesday’s ago I was called into the board room with several other people and told that business was just too slow to keep us on, for now.

I had no real reason to be worried because I have one of the greatest networking groups in the world behind me. Toastmasters International provides us with the opportunity to meet with members from literally all over the world. Every once in a while we see an article in Toastmaster about members traveling the world and looking up the local Toastmasters group in the city the wind blew them to. They always find a friendly face and help with anything they need.

The wind blew me into the dark city of Unemployment and maybe it’s providence, but we are also in the middle of a contest season. This is a great opportunity to attend Area Contests and soon Division Contests. I have an opportunity to share my story, but more importantly, I also have an opportunity to help the speakers with my own experience in competitive speaking.

Why is it more important that I help others? As the Online Coach and Mentor Aylen De Aranza reminded us in her Huffington Post, February 12, 2016 article, “Five Ways to Network Like a Rock Star,” “One of the most powerful and genuine ways that you can network is by being a connector; focus on how you can add value to others.” In other words, networking is not about you; it’s about how many people you can help. People recognize when you genuinely want to help. They also recognize, very quickly in fact, when you’re in it for yourself and they will treat you accordingly. So far I have made two important connections just by going to the contests and preparing for my own contest. One asked for two, count them two, copies of my resume and the other has offered her huge LinkedIn network for my use. I also have a lead with an engineer who recently recovered from the same fall I just experienced. As a result of the networking I did using the skills I learned and practiced in Toastmasters, I have gained three job interviews.

In Aylen’s article she points out five steps to become a great networker. Here in Toastmasters we have the opportunity to practice all five with no real significant effects if we do them wrong. If we mess up or wimp out at one event, it’s okay. Since Toastmasters is a laboratory, we can get back on the saddle and try again next time.

The Many Facets of Toastmasters: Self-Confidence

The single greatest transformation I had ever seen in anyone in my time as a Toastmaster was a woman who joined our club a few years back. She was the single shyest adult I had ever met. She stood with her arms crossed tightly over her body. Her eyes were constantly down casted and you could feel her pain as she forced herself to speak to anyone, whether to the group or just one person. About two years later, she left our club … to join an acting troop.

This woman’s transformation made me think deeply about one of the greatest secret gems of Toastmasters: the opportunity for anyone to develop self-confidence. I saw it in my own life. As a recovering shy person, I can easily see the difference in my life before I joined Toastmasters and now. At work, I never spoke up. I didn’t think I had the authority. This is what my inner dialog sounded like.

“I have an opinion.”

“This isn’t your place to speak. Just keep it to yourself.”


After being a member of Toastmasters my inner dialog changed. It began to sound something like this.

“I have an opinion.”

“This isn’t your place to speak. Just keep it to yourself.”

“I don’t care if it’s my place or not, I’m giving my opinion.”

“You never listen to me anymore.”

“Are you still talking?”

I really did begin to give my opinion at work whether I had the authority or not. I noticed that the rest of the people in the meetings didn’t always agree with me, but they did always appreciate my thoughts. I would never have found out that my opinions actually mattered if I didn’t have the confidence to speak up and I have Toastmaster to thank for it.

How does Toastmasters build confidence? As an active member, you have a lot of opportunities to test and push the limits of your speaking and leadership abilities. As you do, you also test and push the limits of your comfort zone. The bigger your comfort zone gets the more confidence you have that you can be successful and authoritative in life.

Steve Errey, a confidence coach wrote a post for LifeHack.org called 63 Ways to Build Self Confidence. After going through all 63 recommendations Steve makes, I realized that 42 of them are things we have the opportunity to work on in Toastmasters. Numbers 1, 18, 35, 38, 41 and 57 especially caught my eye. These, in particular, are things we work on just by showing up at Toastmasters meetings.

Steve wrote in the beginning of his post, “Confidence is a tool you can use in your everyday life to do all kinds of cool stuff, not least to stop second-guessing yourself, manage your fears and become able to do more of the things that really matter to you.” Besides being a place to learn public speaking and leadership, Toastmasters really is a self-improvement organization which helps us to clarify our hopes and dreams and most importantly helps us to realize that we can achieve them.

The Many Facets of Toastmasters: Writing

When I first joined Toastmasters, I wanted to increase my confidence when presenting land development plans at municipal meetings. I no longer have a job requiring me to speak in front of people, but I remain a member of Toastmasters. Over the next few posts I’d like to describe the many facets of Toastmasters which I have found.

To those who have never heard of Toastmasters, it’s best known as a drinking club. To those who have heard of Toastmasters, but who’s familiarity ends there, it’s known as the club where people learn how to give a speech. Although the latter is true and sometimes the former is also true, there is a lot that goes on within the club meetings where we learn far more than speaking in front of people.

When I first joined Toastmasters I wanted to have more confidence in front of people. I certainly gained that within the first year, but I noticed something else as well. My writing skills had gotten a lot better. I’m dyslexic and, as a result, my writing, spelling and punctuation are generally horrible. Because of the time that I took to write out my speeches, I was able to literally teach myself how to write. I learned how to punctuate, I learned how to use paragraphs, and I learned good sentence construction. My spelling has improved marginally, but my use of the spell check and the thesaurus are expert.

I used to write because I had to. Now I write because I want to. In writing, I found an outlet for my creativity which I absolutely love. In case you haven’t already guessed, I write a blog now. Something that you would not know is I have written a manuscript for a historical supernatural thriller, which I am currently shopping around for representation.

If someone told you Toastmasters can help you with your writing, would you believe them? When I first started, writing was not even on my radar screen, so that would have gone over my head. Now, after writing out close to a hundred speeches, many blog posts and I don’t know how many emails, all because of my responsibilities as a Toastmaster, plus using writing as a creative outlet to the tune of a full 85,000 word manuscript and many unpublished essays and short stories, I can write much clearer than I ever have or ever thought I could. Most of my teachers throughout school would be shocked at where I ended up. I think of where I came from and I can’t help but be shocked either.

The Division E Humorous speech Contest

The Division E Humorous Speech contest I mentioned in an earlier post was held on Wednesday, October 21st. Unfortunately for me, I did not win that contest.  I came in second to a very good speaker that just happens to be a fellow member of the Susquehanna Advanced Toastmasters club I attend. I don’t feel bad about the loss at all.  Susan apparently worked very hard on her speech and she executed it very well. I’m also happy with my own performance. All of the practice, came shining through, if I do say so myself. The reasons I didn’t win could very well come down to the luck of the draw, since Susan and I had to admit to each other that we didn’t know who won until the announcement was made.

One thing I may have been able to do better is stage presence.  I did use much more of the stage than I have in the past, but I may have been able to be more aggressive in how far I traveled from center stage. In general the more three dimensional your movements are on stage the better. You not only want to move from side to side on the stage in order to engage the entire audience, but you want to move back and forth as well. You move back during less important parts of the speech, so that during the more important parts of the speech you can move toward the audience. This will help to put emphasis on your point.

I don’t think the back and forth was a real problem for me, since there was not a lot of room for that, and what little room I had I believe I used well. My problem could have been the horizontal movements. Generally, unless the speech calls for it, you don’t want to go out to the edges of the stage, but you do want to move out close enough where you can directly engage the audience members on the periphery of the room.  I believe this is where I may have failed.  I did not engage the audience members on the very edges of the room as well as I could have and that may have cost me, since I think Susan did that.

There are a few other things I need to keep in mind as well; however I will not cover them in this post. I will be pondering all of the many lessons I learned during this competition season and do my best to work them into the international season coming up.