Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"What do I do about eye contact and swaying when I speak?"

I asked readers of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook, "If you could improve one thing about your public speaking, what would you focus on?" Chaitra Shenoy replied, "Eye contact and swaying."

My first reaction: If you already know you sway when you speak, you're ahead of the game--many speakers have no idea how their bodies move while they speak, which is why video recording is so helpful.

To my mind, swaying and avoiding eye contact are two sides of the same coin.  When you can't face your audience squarely and hold your position, and can't look them in the eye, you may be speaking but you're avoiding a confrontation with your audience. For some speakers, swaying and avoiding eye contact are a kind of safety blanket, a comforting way to face a stressful situation. Trouble is, you need to face the audience--and look at it--if people are going to relate to you in person.

So what to do?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Remember it's OK to be nervous.  Then focus on getting at the root of your fears, which are in large part a normal physical response. Learn the breathing exercises and preparation that will help you face the crowd.
  • Focus on centering--or moving--your body.  There are lots of tactics you can use to avoid swaying. Try pulling in your core muscles and making sure you have a steady stance. If that doesn't help, try moving your body (it's hard to sway when you're walking) around the room, pausing to stand still for emphasis.
  • Concentrate your eye contact. Start out by looking at one person at a time, rather than the whole group. (Moving around the room rather than standing in one place helps you do that easily.)  Remember that while your physical reaction is "OMG, they're all looking at me," that's a sign of success for a speaker.  Use your platform to connect with the audience, using your eyes.
  • Use simple stress reduction practices to help you focus.  Take several deep breaths to relax about five minutes before you begin, and be sure to take breaths and pause while you're speaking. Smile, so the action of your facial muscles will release the "feel-good" chemicals that will help you warm up and relax. Try to meet and talk to several audience members ahead of time, so you can find them and look at them when you speak--just to make the scene more familiar.

What do you do to combat swaying and help with eye contact?

Related posts: "I'm not nervous when I speak, but...": Why it's OK to be nervous

Five eye contact tips for speakers

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Speaker silence: How to be quiet at the right times

When I asked readers of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook what they'd focus on if they could improve just one thing about their public speaking, Jennie Poppenger and Tonya Woolfolk voted for "How to be quiet at the right times."

And you think we deal with easy questions on this blog, don't you?

Context counts for a lot in answering this question, and I don't have more than that short phrase to go on, but you should consider your context when considering when to be quiet and what's the "right time."  Just because you have the floor as the speaker or presenter doesn't, for example, mean you should fill the time allotted--a common failure of speakers who leave no room for questions. That tendency is one that nearly guarantees you'll send your listeners home frustrated and unsatisfied.

I like to think about the speaker's silence as a powerful tool.  Can you be generous enough to let others make points and share what they know? Then you can look confident and self-assured...and still have the last word as you summarize. But that also depends on your having established yourself as in charge of the agenda or the discussion. Just letting people talk over you isn't what I'm suggesting. It's a balancing act, but I'd rather have you include others than shut them out with too many words.

Silence can also help you look and act thoughtful. Too often, speakers think they must respond to every question, thought or sly suggestion--particularly in a competitive workplace. Sometimes, a thoughtful, "I'll have to consider that some more," or "I'd like to give that more thought before responding" is better.   Pauses help with silence, too. There's no reason you should avoid pausing to think before answering--far from it.  (And pausing silently is a great alternative to ums and uhs.)

Finally, let people finish before you add your voice to the discussion, whether they are making a point or asking a question. You may be enthusiastic and attempting to reinforce a point, but take your time and let the other person finish first. Then pause and respond. If you have trouble with this, practice waiting until the sentence is done, tap your foot three times, then speak.

Related posts:  Speakers: 7 reasons I want you to talk less

17 reasons to welcome audience questions

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Use the Evernote clip button, above, to save this post in an Evernote notebook. Go here to subscribe to Step Up Your Speaking, my free email newsletter that looks at a different speaking topic in depth each month...then become a fan of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook and join the conversation with thousands of other women (and men) about public speaking skills and confidence.