Eye contact helps overcome stage fright

I’ve read a few posts lately mentioning that eye contact is hard for a speaker, even experienced ones. (One place I just saw it is in the very good article “5 Public Speaking Tips that Build Relationships.”) I agree! But I also want to push a little beyond the initial resistance we have to it.

As Dr. Michelle observes, “Making eye contact allows you to connect with your audience.” The emphasis here is on genuine contact. The old saws about picking out a spot on the back wall or looking at their foreheads do not work simply because they don’t establish contact. While the idea of contacting a stranger that intimately seems threatening at first, once you do you’ll discover something very pleasant: there is no such thing as an audience!

The term “audience” references a concept, not something that exists in reality. We fear the audience, this monster with 200 eyes that threatens to rear up and swallow us whole. In reality, there is simply a group of 100 individuals. You have conversations with individuals. When you make genuine contact with individuals your fear drops, and you just continue with your planned conversation. Other people can eavesdrop if they want, and as more people look back at you, you include more people in the conversation.

In every group of people, there are always those who look back and smile, or nod in the right places. Converse with them at first. Just like those spontaneous gatherings that form in the school or company cafeteria, people are attracted to interesting conversations, and they’ll join in. Ignore the ones who don’t look back–if they don’t want to be part of the conversation, don’t force it, and certainly don’t focus on them. Their numbers will reduce anyway as they join in, attracted by the energetic, friendly, conversational tone that results from focusing on the ones who do want to converse.

And it all begins with simple, genuine eye contact. Monster slaying doesn’t require solving a challenge, but rather dissolving a concept. Look them in the eyes, and the monster dries up and falls away.

photo by: @Doug88888
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  1. Michelle Mazur

    First, thank you so much for the shout out to my blog. Second, I had an experience with making eye contact yesterday that eased my own nerves. I was competing in a Toastmasters contest. I always get SUPER nervous for contest. As I scanned the audience before I began to speak, there was one face (someone I didn’t know) that stood out. He had a big smile on his face, was leaning forward and seemed super engaged.I started my speech by looking at him. Anytime I got a bit nervous or need a bit reassurance that the speech was going well, I’d look back at this smiling, attentive face. He helped me connect with my audience as a whole. I always tell beginning speakers to find a couple of those faces in your audience because it will ease your fear and your nerves!

    • Donn King

      Very cool! Thank you for the feedback! I tell students the same thing, on the basis that it starts to feel like a planned conversation instead of a “speech,” placed in quotation marks to indicate people respond to their concept rather than to the reality of the situation.

      Gotta ask: how did the contest go?

      • Michelle Mazur

        The contest went very well. I won. Now, I will go on to represent my area at the Division contest in April!

        • Donn King

          Very cool! Congratulations!

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