A myth we thought was long debunked came back around a few weeks ago. In talking about how to do demonstration presentations, an experienced presenter (not a Turpin trainer) said that real eye contact isn’t necessary, “Just look at the back wall, and people will think you’re looking at them,” she said. Even if that were true (which it isn’t, and we’ll talk about that in a moment), a speaker not making eye contact is a speaker who’s not engaged. And when you’re not engaged, you’re missing valuable information from your listeners that would make you a more effective and more agile presenter.
In our training sessions, we focus on eye contact and pausing as ways to make presenters be more engaged and feel more confident and connected. When engagement is reached, people can read the room and think on their feet. Both skills – eye contact and pausing – can help manage nerves and the fallout of nervousness, like speaking too quickly or getting lost in the content. But there’s another set of benefits that come with being engaged that are of real value to you as a presenter. Let’s take a look at those and why they are important.
An Engaged Presenter Addresses This Audience
An effective business presentation or meeting is different from a speech. We call it an Orderly Conversation®. That terminology helps us focus on the fact that effective presentations are an exchange of ideas. When you deliver a speech, you think about the audience at the preparation phase. Once your thoughts are committed to your script, that’s it. You will pretty much deliver it word-for-word as written. In contrast, delivering a business presentation or facilitating a meeting well requires you to make adjustments during delivery, just as you would in a conversation. Yes, you prepare (the orderly part), but you need to be ready to handle whatever your listeners send your way (the conversation part).
When you are engaged—when you’re making eye contact, seeing faces, and pausing to think—you connect with the specific individuals in front of you. Yes, you’re addressing the marketing team, and that’s who you’ll keep in mind during your prep. But by really engaging with the people on the team, you will connect with the market analyst and remember that he started just a few weeks ago and might need more of your project history explained. You will engage the marketing research director and remember the conversation you had with her just a couple of hours before and fold that information into your remarks.
The outcome of this level of engagement is that you will show a deep and broad understanding of your material and demonstrate your ability to pivot in the moment to meet your listeners’ needs. If you avoid this kind of connection, your presentation will be much more generic and less appropriate for the people in the room.
An Engaged Presenter Responds in the Moment
If you begin your presentation or meeting as you planned and barrel through without engaging your listeners, you are, at best, leaving a lot of information on the table and, at worst, alienating or angering some of the people in the room. Let’s look at what could happen.
If you look at the back of the room to give the appearance of eye contact, trust me, your audience knows it, especially if they have a strong reaction to something you say and you fail to pick up on it. What this feels like for listeners is that the presentation is just something you’re checking off your list. It indicates that you don’t really care one way or another if listeners understand your topic.
Not making eye contact can also lead to missing cues. For example, you might miss looks of confusion or disengagement, which might indicate that you need to change your tone, physical position, or even topic to bring everyone back to attention. You might miss looks of anger or disagreement, which allows those feelings to fester and grow. If you’re trying to close a sale or get buy-in, you’ve really limited your chances. Finally, you might miss a raised hand or other gesture that should cause you to pause and listen.
Failing to pause has consequences as well. You seem to want to get through your agenda whether your listeners are keeping up or not. Or, you might fail to give listeners time to process information, leading to confusion and frustration. In both situations, you’re making your listeners work far too hard.
Being fully engaged is a sign of professionalism and confidence. It’s also the best way for you to help everyone understand, process, question, and participate. So, get engaged so you can read the room, think on your feet, and be agile.