The Eyes Have It: Quiet Your Nerves, Connect with Your Audience
As you take the time to focus on a single audience member, sharing a thoughtfully planned piece of information, you are able to get in touch with what that listener needs from you.
We all know it’s important to make eye contact with an audience. In practice, though, this can be unnerving. Here’s the secret: focus your eyes on one person and share a complete thought before moving on to the next person. Throughout your presentation, do this repeatedly, transferring your eye contact to a different person, then sharing a complete thought. You will discover that this form of eye contact will calm your nerves rather than rattle them.
When you take the time to focus on one person per thought, your mind has time to take in what you are seeing. This slows your mental processing down in a helpful way. By contrast, if you scan the room with your eyes when speaking, you essentially increase the pace of your sensory processing. Your nervous system must “accelerate” to keep up with all the data you are taking in with your eyes. It’s challenging to keep your nerves under control when you are stimulating them at an increased pace.
As you take the time to focus on a single audience member, sharing a thoughtfully planned piece of information, you are able get in touch with what that listener needs from you. The expression on that person’s face reveals pertinent information about what he or she might be thinking or feeling, which can guide you in your delivery. In that moment you are experiencing a one-to-one interaction, a context that many of us prefer over a large group. By allowing yourself to focus on one individual at a time, you release the fears and tensions that often keep us from communicating effectively with groups.
This approach becomes even easier when you consciously select with whom you will make eye contact. By deliberately choosing familiar and/or supportive people to focus on first, the effect is calming and inviting to you. It then becomes easier to continue experiencing a sense of self-control as you extend your eye contact to others.
Top-down attention, sometimes called “executive attention” is attention that we consciously and voluntarily control. By employing the top-down approach, we make intentional choices, call on our willpower, and harness control of our reactions to distracting stimuli so that we can truly connect with our audience. By slowing down how we perceive a situation, we give ourselves time to think clearly about what we wish to say. We can react thoughtfully to what our listener appears to be feeling. We can change the pace of our breathing and speech to a more controlled state.
”Bottom-up” attention, on the other hand, is attention that’s driven by outer stimuli—our attention is “snagged” involuntarily by sights and sounds in the environment. Bottom-up attention tends to lead to reflexive actions and impulsiveness. The latter is not useful when we need to manage our nerves. It can cause us to race in our thinking and reactions. This racing can highjack command of our nerves, causing us to spiral out of control.
The next time you have an important message to deliver to a group, consider doing so as if you are speaking to one person at a time, allowing pauses between each point of contact. Your nerves—and the audience—will appreciate it.