While visiting a friend recently in Chapel Hill, NC, we attended a lecture on the University of North Carolina campus. When the speaker started presenting, I noticed that the audience — which ranged in age from 6 to well over 60 — was completely enthralled (including me!) from start to end.
Intrigued, I decided to take a step back to see exactly how this presenter was creating such a powerful experience for his listeners.
To tell you the truth, he wasn’t doing every single thing right — and somehow it didn’t matter. My lesson that day was that he did three things exceptionally well — and those were enough to captivate his audience. And you can start doing those same three things today.
1. Direct eye contact. As he looked out at his audience, the speaker looked at everyone — and I mean everyone. No one was left out. That meant he had to turn to his right, pause, return to the center, pause again, and then turn to his left. With each pause, he had direct eye contact — the kind you’d have with a good friend while sharing a cup of coffee. It was sincere and natural.
Lesson #1: Whenever you are speaking, eye contact throughout your presentation is absolutely essential. Pick out someone (perhaps a colleague or a person you just met), look at him or her for a few seconds, then move on to someone in another part of the room. The rule of thumb for skilled speakers is 90% direct, roving, and continuous eye contact.
2. Personal engagement. This speaker wasn’t simply reading a script (which, by the way, he was using). Rather, he was thinking about what he was saying. For example, when he mentioned that he had been reflecting on a certain topic, he took the time to pause and reflect while describing the scenario to us. Staying in the moment — being truly present — and thinking about what he was saying made his listeners want to take the time and effort to listen rather than daydream.
Lesson #2: Your audience can always detect when you are reading. This type of mindless presentation invites your listeners to tune out sooner rather than later. Make every effort to “think the thought” and stay personally engaged in your message.
3. Smile. It sounds so simple, and yet many speakers still underestimate the power of this gesture. A smile opens up conversation and builds rapport like nothing else. Don’t grin like a buffoon — keep it natural, and use it right from the start. Before you say a word, take a moment to look out at your audience and smile. It’s the easiest way to win over an audience, and help reduce any nervous anxiety.
Lesson # 3: Smiling is a basic yet powerful gesture that communicates your approachability to listeners.
Non-verbal skills like eye contact, engagement, and smiling are just as important as the content of your message. Often, these skills make the difference between connecting with your audience on a personal level and having them mentally reviewing their to-do lists while you’re speaking. It’s an easy way to make sure listening to you is at the top of that list.