Whitman College

Rhetoric and Public Address Department

Mary Ayers


New York Joeís Advice to the Speaker:

Eye Contact is the Key to Success!


Hey you! Yeah, you--the person reading this! Come a little closer. . .Iíve got a secret for ya. Now, come on, I wonít bite. I just want to give you a little information. If you listen up, Iím gonna tell you about one of the most important keys in giving the most successful speech you can imagine. Sound too good to be true? Well, it ainít--and this information wonít even gonna cost you a dime (although, it will cost you a little of your time). The key to a successful speech--are you listening?--is to take your eyes off your notes and try to keep Ďem on your audience. If youíve got your nose stuck in your outline, man, your audience is gonna go to sleep faster than you can blink an eye. Whatís the use of giviní a speech, if no oneís awake to hear your profound and enlightening words? Your audience wants to feel connected with you. They care--and if they donít, you can make Ďem care without the use of illegal weapons! All you gotta do is look up and out at the delightful people in front of you. Eye contact works wonders!

I know whatís running through that head of yours. Youíre thinking, "wait a minute--I need my outline to keep me focused. Sometimes, the stress of facing an audience makes me blank out. I forget what Iím going to say and my notes help me get back on track". Well, I can see some logic in that--most of us speakers get the heebie-jeebies when we have to deliver the goods. But, man, that excuse ainít gonna cut the cheese. (Of course, you donít wanna do that in front of an audience either--but thatís another story.) You know, there are some ways you can bypass a lot of that nervousness. One way is by practicing your speech in front of a make-shift audience before you have to present it in class. Take a few of your buddies, set Ďem down in front of you and run through your speech a few times. If you have to, bribe Ďem with food and beer to keep Ďem there (it always works for me)--but make sure they give you some good criticism. Have Ďem clap their hands every time they see you look down at your notes unnecessarily--that is, when youíre not quoting someone directly. If youíre like some people I know, pretty soon, youíll get a round of applause! Try and look up after every clap and Iíll bet after a few practice runs, you wonít hear a clap in the room.

Also, try and get your friends to tell you how good your eye contact is. I mean, its one thing to look up from your notes, and its another to make quality eye contact with your audience. The most important time to make strong eye contact with your audience is when you have a real heavy fact to relate. For example, you say, "over 2 million people died in drunk driving accidents last year"--whoa--pretty devastating statistic! But is anyone in the audience gonna care if your eyes are pointed straight down? I doubt it. If you ainít lookiní at Ďem, they ainít gonna connect your facts with their lives--and if they donít make that connection, youíre speech is wasting everyoneís time. But, if you really eyeball someone in the audience while you make your comment, the person is gonna think, "gees--heís lookiní at me! This stuff might be important after all. Maybe it has more to do with me and my world than I thought". Eye contact gives this effect, man, believe it!

You know, if you practice in front of your friends a few times, youíll begin to feel laid-back and itíll only get easier to face an audience instead of your notes. That nervous feeling youíre afraid of--it will practically disappear.

If it donít completely go away, thatís OK--we all get what people call "stage fright". Besides practicing your speech, you can help get rid of that with some what we call relaxation and visualization exercises. For example, right before you give your speech, you can clench all your muscles up real tight--until youíre about ready to explode--then release all at once. My personal favorite, though, is to pretend, when you step up to the podium, that everyone in the audience is sitting there in their underwear. The laugh you get from that can really calm you down!

You got another question? OK, what is it? "Can I really go a whole speech without using my notes? Wouldnít I have to memorize what Iím going to say in order to do that?" Hey, Iím not sayiní we should chuck notes all together. We just canít focus on Ďem. Your notes are only meant to help you get your ideas together and in order so what you say makes some sense. But you gotta remember that when you give a speech, one of the worst things you can do is memorize your notes. One of the glories of speech-making is that it ainít canned. Besides your notes and a little practice, you got to rely on your mind and spirit to help pull you through. A lot of the greatest speeches ever made focused on these points. Take a look at Martin Luther Kingís "I Have A Dream Speech" and youíll catch my drift!

More than anything else, though, you gotta trust yourself. Trust yourself enough to make eye contact with your audience and get Ďem involved. Trust yourself to know that you, not your notes, are in charge of your speech and what you are going to say. Trust yourself enough to let your spirit move you! If you do this, man, you ainít got nothiní to worry about. Hey, you might even have some fun when you give your speech!


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Questions or Comments? Send mail to Jim Hanson at hansonjb@whitman.edu.