The One Presentation Skill That Anchors Them All

By Jim Endicott

I remember my first big speaking engagement with the International Association of Business Communicators.  It took place over a decade ago in Vancouver, British Columbia, and like any trip across the border, it involved a brief chat with a uniformed agent in the customs booth.

What would happen next would remind me once again about one of the most important presentation skills we can master.

As I stood patiently in line behind a hundred foreign exchange students, my mind began to wander through my opening comments in a few short hours.  My goal with this large group: be intentional about making a very personal connection.  This can seem like a daunting task at times.

But suddenly I was shaken out of my thoughts by a rather foreboding customs official giving me her well-practiced “come now” gesture. I slid my documents through the window and then it happened.  The same thing that has happened dozens of times before…but somehow my awareness level had been elevated in that moment.

Her eyes came up, met mine and then she began to ask me some questions (A few seconds felt like an eternity).  And in those moments I came face-to-face with one of her most practiced and job-essential skill sets – discerning truthfulness.  She was a trained professional in the art.  She didn’t look at my hands.  She didn’t see if my feet were shuffling.

She looked me straight in the eyes.

We may not be professionally trained at this lie-detector skill, but we’ve come by it quite naturally – every one of us.  And over the thousands of times we’ve asked our workshop attendees how they discern trust and believability in someone they’re seeing for the first time, the #1 most consistent answer is through the presenter’s eyes.

(A great case study…. observe Lance Armstrong’s eyes during his Oprah interview.  Watch at 5:38… “And I am sorry for that.”  Really?)

And why should you care if from time to time your eyes seem to bounce around the room?  Because at the heart of every important communication opportunity is this very simple truth:

If someone cannot trust you, why should they trust what you have to say?

In my 20 years of personal skills coaching, there are typically 4 reasons people struggle with this very important foundational skill:

  1. We’re creatures of habit and it takes less mental (and personal) energy to simply scan a room. It also helps us stay in our own heads to get the message right.
  2. Sometimes a bad experience or a result of unhealthy human interactions greatly impact someone’s personal comfort level.
  3. Simple brain mechanics are in play as a presenter’s eyes disengage (drop to the floor) as their brain buys time to think what’s coming next (usually accompanied by a series of umms or ahhs).
  4. Cultural issues can cause eyes to drop as a sign of respect – but carry a very different perception in North America.

Although these are all very real issues, the people on the other end of your presentations only know what they perceive in that moment.  Your personal history, bad experiences or even cultural upbringing really don’t matter. All they know is something doesn’t feel right.

And at the heart of most of these habits is a ‘presentation mode’ we’ve forged over decades. Well-entrenched. Deeply ingrained. And over time they feel like a comfortable pair of shoes.

Gone  is the warm, engaging eye contact we may have exhibited with others in our offices (or Starbucks) minutes earlier.  We become instantly detached in front of a group.  Mechanical.  And our evasive eyes send messages our audience must now struggle to reconcile.

Here’s one simple piece of advice….

Turn every presentation opportunity into a series of 1-on-1 conversations no matter what the group size; communicating to one set of eyes for 3-4 seconds, then another… then another.

For a great example of this skill, check out a TED Talks video of Jane McGonigal. Although she’s presenting to an audience of hundreds, her great eye communication makes it a personal and engaging experience for her audience… and we trust her and what she has to say to us.

You see, without trust you have no influence. Without trust there is no relationship. Without trust you have no chance to persuade or inspire.  And trust is built first and foremost through our eyes.

Now you know why it’s the one critical presentation skill that anchors them all.

About the Author:

Jim Endicott is president of Distinction Communication Inc, a Newberg, OR consulting firm specializing in message development, presentation design and delivery skills coaching. For more information about the company, visit www.distinction-services.com

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