New York Joe's Advice to the Speaker: Eye Contact is the Key to Success!
Hey you! Yeah, you--the person reading this! Come a little closer. . .I've got a secret for ya. Now, come on, I won't bite. I just want to give you a little information. If you listen up, I'm 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 ain't--and this information won't 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 'em on your audience. If you've got your nose stuck in your outline, man, your audience is gonna go to sleep faster than you can blink an eye. What's the use of givin' a speech, if no one's awake to hear your profound and enlightening words? Your audience wants to feel connected with you. They care--and if they don't, you can make 'em 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 what's running through that head of yours. You're 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 I'm 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 ain't gonna cut the cheese. (Of course, you don't wanna do that in front of an audience either--but that's 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 'em down in front of you and run through your speech a few times. If you have to, bribe 'em with food and beer to keep 'em there (it always works for me)--but make sure they give you some good criticism. Have 'em clap their hands every time they see you look down at your notes unnecessarily--that is, when you're not quoting someone directly. If you're like some people I know, pretty soon, you'll get a round of applause! Try and look up after every clap and I'll bet after a few practice runs, you won't 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 ain't lookin' at 'em, they ain't gonna connect your facts with their lives--and if they don't make that connection, you're speech is wasting everyone's time. But, if you really eyeball someone in the audience while you make your comment, the person is gonna think, "gees--he's lookin' 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, you'll begin to feel laid-back and it'll only get easier to face an audience instead of your notes. That nervous feeling you're afraid of--it will practically disappear.
If it don't completely go away, that's 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 you're 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? Wouldn't I have to memorize what I'm going to say in order to do that?" Hey, I'm not sayin' we should chuck notes all together. We just can't focus on 'em. 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 ain't 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 King's "I Have A Dream Speech" and you'll catch my drift!
More than anything else, though, you gotta trust yourself. Trust yourself enough to make eye contact with your audience and get 'em 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 ain't got nothin' to worry about. Hey, you might even have some fun when you give your speech!