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Presentation Training: Are You Looking at Me?

We’ve called upon our resident body language expert, Sharon Merrill EVP & Partner David Calusdian, to teach us to become better speakers – whether at meetings, investor conferences or in more personal settings. This four-part conversation provides a taste of the good, and bad, habits of executive presenters, with a few tips for improvement along the way. Today’s post is Part II in the series.

The Podium: Hello, David. Today we’re going to discuss eye contact and how we can use it effectively during our presentations. Why don’t we start with improving eye contact when using a projection screen, as with a PowerPoint presentation?

DC: Maintaining good eye contact with the audience is a necessity. You should look at a screen only if you need to see the bullet points or graphic on the slide in order to speak to it. Glance very quickly to the screen, then back to your audience -- so that you can direct the audience to the screen but maintain their attention.

The Podium: You mentioned eye contact is good. We’ve probably all heard that, but why is it true?

DC: By using eye contact, you as a speaker are forcing the audience to pay attention to you. Some people try to simulate this by looking at a “dot” at the back of a room or by scanning across an audience to reach as many people as possible. In actuality, neither of these is effective. Don’t look at a dot, and don’t scan. Instead, look at individual people. Think of it this way: If there are 100 people in the room, have 100 individual conversations by establishing eye contact with each one, versus having one conversation with 100 people.

The Podium: That’s an interesting way of thinking about a group presentation. So, by increasing eye contact, you’re getting people to pay attention to what you’re saying. What are the benefits of that?

DC: Most importantly, it creates a connection to the audience. Subconsciously, they are more interested in what you have to say, because they really feel you are talking to them. Besides, they are less likely to look at their phones if they know you’re about to look at them!

The Podium: That actually sounds relatively easy, then. What would be a poor use of eye contact?

DC: Shifting your eyes back and forth is one. That can send a negative signal, showing a speaker is nervous.

The Podium: I’ve read that shifty eyes also indicate defensiveness or that you’re untrustworthy. Snake oil comes to mind.

DC: By definition, if you’re shifting your eyes, you’re not making eye contact. And if someone’s not looking you in the eyes, you tend to wonder what they’re up to.

The Podium: Thanks for taking the time today, David. We’re looking forward to our next conversation, when we’ll be discussing the use of voice.

David Calusdian, an executive vice president and partner at Sharon Merrill, oversees the implementation of investor relations programs, coaches senior executives in presentation skills and provides strategic counsel to clients on numerous communications issues.

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