When I first joined Toastmasters in 2004, like many new members, I suffered from excessive fear of public speaking. I tried to follow my mentors’ excellent advice of making good eye contact, but quickly realized it made my anxiety worse. Because of necessity, I developed a way of coping with that fear. As I spoke to a group, I would purposely blur my vision. This way I could appear to be making good eye contact but, in reality, I couldn’t see their eyes. That practice relieved my trepidation immensely. I appeared more comfortable and confident in front of the group and there was no way my mentors could tell me I wasn’t making good eye contact.
In the years since, I discovered the immense amount of psychology that goes into public speaking. One of the many things I learned is when a speaker is not really making good eye contact there is no real connection between the presenter and the audience. The reason is a connection between the speaker and the audience is mostly subconscious. There are subtle nuances in the presenter’s movements, words and tone which the audience picks up on intuitively, as a result, the audience’s mood changes and thereby changing the mood of the speaker. It’s a vicious circle which adversely affects the presentation.
With this in mind, I began to rid myself of the habit of blurring my vision to look into the eyes of my audience. It worked out well for me and I’m happy to say that I haven’t spoken with blurred vision for years. However, because of my errant ways I developed another bad habit which I only recently became aware.
I first noticed the problem in a video of the Region VII contest in which I participated back in 2008. At the time, I didn’t pick up on exactly what the problem was. I watched the video with my wife and as I saw myself speaking, I said to her, “I look … twitchy.” Being the wonderful supporting wife, she said, “No you don’t.” I knew there was something wrong, but my wife was right. I didn’t look twitchy … exactly…, but there was definitely something erratic about the way I was presenting my speech.
I forgot about the whole matter as I got into my work as Area Governor, but was recently reminded of the issue as I watched the video of my presentation of “Achilles Never Had a Chance.” As I watched, I saw the same erratic movements I wasn’t able to figure out before. Apparently, no one in the audience could figure it out either, because no one brought it up during the group evaluation.
I watched the video a few times before it dawned on me what was going on. I wasn’t making good eye contact. I was making eye contact. I did look into the audience’s eyes … without blurring my vision, but the eye contact didn’t match the speech.
As Toastmasters, we talk plenty about making our body language match the things we say, but we don’t spend a lot of time on making our eye contact match our speech. The best way to make our eye contact match our speech is to look at one member of the audience as we speak a sentence and as we begin the next sentence, pick another member of the audience. As we share a full sentence with each member of the audience, we make a much stronger connection with that member, and through the subconscious that positive connection spreads from audience member to audience member until we have a strong connection with the audience as a unit.
The obvious reason for good eye contact is the strong conscious and subconscious connection you’ll have with your audience. A hidden reason for good eye contact is your body language becomes much more stable. Each member of the audience acts as a temporary anchor keeping your gaze steady for the length of a sentence and as the sentence ends, your change to another pair of eyes will seem much more smooth and natural.
The eye contact issue is something I’m still working on. Sometimes, it’s surprising how difficult it is to break a bad habit. I’ll know how well I’ve done at the Area 13 contest on March 19.