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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Claire Duffy said...

Swaying is very common and I agree with all Denise's great suggestions. I suggest clients write cues in their speech notes. Use a different font or colour:'Eye contact time', or 'where are my feet?' 'Stand still now' and 'SMILE' can be helpful prompts.

Kate Peters said...

Always helpful, Denise. Regarding swaying, it is often the result of not being grounded because of the way you stand. I recommend standing like a singer, with one foot slightly in front of the other, about 10 inches apart, weight forward, knees bendable (not locked.)