Tag Archives: Toastmasters

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 2012 Division E International Speech Contest

On Thursday night, the Division E contest was every bit the challenge I thought it would be.  The two speakers I had to compete against, both, apparently, had thoroughly practiced there speeches during the three weeks between the Combined area contests and Thursday night; both speeches where tight and ready to roll.  Fortunately, for me, even though I had a very busy three weeks, I was also able to practice a lot.  The unknown candidate was also there.  From Area 16, the Scranton area was the one speaker in the contest I hadn’t seen yet.

I picked third out of four speakers.  Interestingly enough, out of the three speakers who had all seen each other’s speeches, I was last.  I was happy with that position, because it gave me a chance to relax and gather my thoughts after the speech contest started and to get a little inspiration from the proceeding speakers.

The first speech which Bonnie was giving was about her friend who had a son with a heroin addiction and ultimately died from it.  She hadn’t changed any of the words, but the whole speech was crisper, tighter and she was ready for the Division Contest.  Justin’s speech about Steve Jobs and some of the apps for the Ipad and Iphone which can help us be better Toastmasters, seemed to start strong but end weak at the Area contest.  On Thursday night, it was clear Justin worked hard on his speech.  He closed all of those holes and reworked the end to create a very strong and somewhat intimidating speech.

Then it was my turn.  I started my speech by telling the story of how Achilles got shot in the heel with an arrow.  I started just after the Trojan archer Paris had shot the arrow into the famous heel.  I quickly compared Paris facing an “invincible nemesis” to our own seemingly invincible problems.  Then I shared my story of how I lost my job and took nearly four months of job searching to find another.  I then showed how I used the same method to defeat my “Personal Achilles” as Paris did in the Greek legend.  The secret is patience coupled with persistence.

I felt good when I first started my speech.  I did the introduction to the speech and then started into the body.  Then it happened.  A slight stammer.  It happened in a portion of the speech I had trouble with early on.  I gave the speech in front of several groups and it appeared I had mastered the first couple of sentences of the speech, but I stammered.

After my speech was over, I sat down and I felt that little stammer was a hug problem.  The fourth speaker took the stage and gave a very entertaining speech about her brand new cat.  I sat thinking about my one slip and hoped the judges would forgive me.  At the end of the contest I listened to the results and I heard my name. But not at the position I wanted to hear it.  I came in second.  I was not entirely surprised to hear Justin had won first place.

I don’t really know if that stammer caused my loss, but I do know that with the level of competition that was at the Division E contest, that was all it would have taken to miss first place.  However, Justin’s speech was very tight and I had a hard time finding a weak point.  Justin is on his way to the District 38 contest and I sincerely believe he will do very well.  All I know is it would make me feel a lot better if he wins the district contest.

The Area 13 Contest

Last night was the Area 13 contest.  Along with Area 13 it was also the Area 18 and 24 contests.  It was an interesting event.  I got to see three-fourths of the Division E Contest take shape.  I have now seen two other speeches I will be facing on April 26th and they have seen mine.  Both of the winning speeches are extra-ordinary.  One was on a simple subject, the wonders of Steve Jobs and Apple and the other was on the scurgges of harroin.  The former was a very funny yet very useful speech about the many things we as Toastmasters can do with the iPhone and the iPad.  The latter was a very emotional speech about how harroine took the life of a dear friend’s son.  Emotionally, my speech sat in the middle.  I have humorous parts and serious parts in my speech.  Besides last nights speeches, there is one more out there.  The wild card speech; the contestant from the area that was not represented last night, Area 28.

Last night’s contest was very special.  Most times when you watch a contest, there is at least one speaker who you have to wonder how they got to this level.  There were seven speakers last night and every single one of them could have been in division level contests, let alone area.

The contestant I competed against, is a returning member of Community Toastmasters and has been returned for not quite a year.  He was excellent.  He spoke first and during his speech on the pitfalls of multi-tasking, I couldn’t help but worry.

I took the stage and things went basically as I planned.  I did stumble at one point, and unfortunately it was noticeable, however, as I looked into the eyes of the audience, I could see I was connecting in a very deep way.  I’m sure many of them had experienced unemployment as well, and they were remembering their own tribulation.

After the contest was over, I realized I had a hug lesson in humility.  Practicing my speech in front of familiar faces is a good way to learn my speech, however, without a measuring stick, I didn’t know how well I was really doing.  Last night my presentation was measured against abnormally good speeches and speaker and, although I don’t think I was found wanting, I’m definitely not as far ahead as I had envisioned.  In fact, at this point, I don’t even know if I’m first.  Over the next three weeks I have a lot of work to do and have to share my speech as much as possible.  I need to rework my speech … again and practice hard, because I know that is what the other two contestants will be doing.  All three speeches will be better come April 26th and I’m going to have to recommit myself to see that mine is the best.

I know what to expect from the two other speaker, but at the moment, I’m most worried about the speaker I have not yet heard.

The Postponement

The 2012 Area 13 International Speech Contest was supposed to be on March 19th, but because of scheduling difficulties, it had to, not only be moved back to the April 5th, it also had to be moved to Allentown, which is about an hour drive from where I live.  The reason it was moved there was because a joint contest with Areas 18 and 23 where already scheduled.  Area 13 would be able to plug into the already existing contest pretty seamlessly with very little extra planning involved.


I have been a little concerned about giving my speech at the Area contest and then giving the very same speech for the division contest in front of virtually the same group.  I was particularly worried about the area 16 speaker who is not in the contest on April 5th.   However this is what Toastmasters is all about.  This is what competing in the Toastmasters International Speech Contest is all about.  We are presented with problems or perceived problems and we must make adjustments on the fly.


After thinking about the challenge, I realized this is actually a good situation.  First of all, part of the answer to my dilemma is built into the problem.  Some of my Mentors will be there and, assuming I win, I will be able to sit down with them and find out what I need to improve on.  The added pressure of finding a way to wow practically the same audience with the same speech will force me to reach deeper into my heart and soul and find powerful solutions.  In the end, if all of the contestants play their cards right, this situation will make for a great Division E contest on April 26.

A Hidden Reason for Good Eye Contact

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.

Achilles Never Had A Chance; Reveled

Last night, during the Reading Toastmasters by-weekly meeting, I gave the speech I plan to use for the upcoming contest season.  Funny enough, as I mentioned in my last post, I wrote this speech back in 2008.  I then wrote it again after losing my job and found a new one.

It’s funny how ideas for speeches can come along.  One day I was listening to the radio and a Led Zeppelin song I hadn’t heard in a while came on.  The galloping drums and bass along with the orchestral guitar work were instantly familiar to me, but I had forgotten the name of the song.  I looked at the screen of my satellite radio and saw, “Achilles Last Stand.”  I thought to myself, “That would be a great title for a speech!”

When I got home, I did a little research on how Achilles was killed.  I looked for a message I could draw out of the story and use in conjunction with a personal story.  After a couple of hours, I realized that Paris, the man who killed Achilles, used patience as a weapon.  Paris lived a cursed life and was never able to do anything right.  He stayed away from Achilles until he saw a small window of opportunity while Achilles walked with his back toward Paris.  It was then Paris took out his bow and arrow and shot Achilles in his heal.

All I needed was a personal story to go along with this legend and I was sure I could make a powerful and memorable message.  I did decide to use a story which turned out to be slightly prophetic.  I used the story of how I started my job at the time and the pitfalls I had to go through to become proficient.  After I lost my job at the end of 2008 and then found a new one in early 2009, I realized I had a much better story to use.

Since 2009 I had revisited the speech several times making changes and polishing it until I had a shining diamond of a speech.  I began sharing it with audiences and had some great evaluations which I considered as I polished the speech even more. Last night was the first time I used the speech in this contest season.  I had a great group evaluation.  They told me the story of Paris and Achilles was blended very smoothly into my personal story and they also found that the legend helped bring my point across much more clearly.

I didn’t expect to have a perfect evaluation, so when a few people had a couple of areas for improvement, I was very appreciative.  Apparently, I need to work on some of my body language in the beginning and there were a couple of times when I spoke too quickly and slurred some words together.  One valuable suggestion was to go through my speech and simplify any long sentences, so they’d be easier to say without jamming up the words.

All in all, I had a very successful night and I believe it was a great start to a great contest year.  The next time I am scheduled to give the speech is on March 19th.  The day of the 2012 Area 13 International Speech Contest.

The Hiatus

After The Region VII contest, I was determined to use my new found experience to get back to the Regional contest and hopefully farther.  I got a speech called, “Achilles Last Stand” to work out pretty well.  As of December of 2008, it still needed a lot of work, but I felt pretty good about it.

Then everything changed.  On December 12, 2008 I lost my job.  I let as many people as I could know in an attempt to use all of my networking options.  The strategy worked … sort of.  I got lots of leads right away, but because of the economy they didn’t pan out.

I stayed close to Toastmasters because I knew the skills I was practicing kept me sharp for interviews and job searches.  It also provided a system for continuous networking.  In fact, the Division E governor called me one day with a very interesting proposition.  He told me he needed to fill the position of Area 13 Governor, my area, and asked if I would step in.  He felt that my exposure as the Area 13 Governor could result in many more networking opportunities.

I knew he was right, but the request brought me to a very difficult decision.  I loved competing, and I was well on my way to preparing for the upcoming contest season.  If I were to take the area governorship I wouldn’t be able to compete, but I would improve my chances of finding a new job.

After a day of though, I decided to be the Area Governor and I took the position in January 2009, half way through the Toastmasters’ year.  Over the next six months I found the District Leadership role was indispensable for the learning of speaking skills. As Area Governor, I got a close up look at what really goes on behind the scenes of a contest and what it takes to put one on.  I got a better feel of what the judges are looking for and how they are affected by different ideas.  Besides the contest experiances I got more speaking opportunities than I realized I could handle.  I was giving several speeches per month and gaining more experience than I knew what to do with.

The first six months I spent as the Area 13 Governor was extremely rewarding, so when June came around, and I was asked to stay on for the 2009-10 year, I wasted no time in accepting.  Although I was having such a great time in the district leadership during those 18 months, I never stopped dreaming about competing.  I conceived a plan in which I would compete in and win the 2012 Toastmasters International Championship of Public Speaking.  Every few months since the 2008 contest season I worked on improving and experimenting with two speeches; the already proven “Wings and Chains” and a speech which I wrote before I got laid off, but then rewrote after finding another job, “Achilles Last Stand.”

I chose not to compete in the 2011 International Speech Contest and continue to prepare for the 2012 competition as I envisioned.  For me, the 2012 International Competition has been four years in the making.  The speech has changed quite a bit since its original form in 2008 and I’m sure it will continue to change as I learn more about it and how it makes my audiences feel.  Over the last four years, “Achilles Last Stand” changed from being a speech about believing in yourself to a speech about the bedrock of persistence and success; Patience.  In the past few months the name of the speech itself, changed since I realized that Achilles never really did have a “last stand.”  Instead I realized that he never stood a chance in the first place.  Therefore I changed the name to “Achilles Never Stood A Chance.”

I’ve already practiced this speech in front of several groups and had great evaluations.  Tomorrow, February 20, I will take the first step toward the fruition of a four year dream by giving my speech to my home club, Reading Toastmasters.  It won’t be a club contest, since no one else is competing, but it’s extremely important none-the-less.  Tomorrow’s speech and reactions will set the pace and mood for the rest of the contest season; a contest season which I plan to end in Orlando Florida on August 18 by accepting the first place trophy for the International Championship of Public Speaking.