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When speaking in public, it's all in the eyes

If you want to impress an audience, toss those notes and direct your roving gaze at every face in the room.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani opts for eye contact over notes when speaking.Admedia / Sipa Press
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

In recent weeks, I've seen at least two high-profile business and political leaders give what could be the most important talks of their lives.

In one case, a politician announced her run for high office. In the other, a commentator issued a stern defense of his record after a potentially damaging allegation was levied against him.

What did they have in common? They both read from prepared notes or scripts, a surefire way to lose that all-important emotional connection to your listeners. In my role as a communications coach, I've found that failing to maintain eye contact ranks as the No. 1 problem — but also the easiest to fix.

Titans who deliver
If you truly want to capture the hearts and minds of your listeners, then maintain eye contact during your presentation, talk, or speech. Great business leaders do. And they do it by not reading.

I've never seen Oracle CEO Larry Ellison read from notes. Ever. I've never seen Cisco CEO John Chambers read from notes. Ever. I've never seen Apple CEO Steve Jobs read from notes. Ever.

Nor does former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. In 1994, for his first budget presentation after election, Giuliani worked tirelessly on what to say about work-rules concessions, productivity gains, budget cuts, and revenue projections. Complicated stuff.

Look up
He began the preparation in October for a speech in February! Why? So he could present it from the heart, without notes. "I gave the whole presentation without a script," Giuliani writes in his book, "Leadership." "Beginning with that first speech, I've always done budgets without prepared text. A few years later as my confidence grew, I began giving my State of the City address the same way."

Giuliani gets it. People associate eye contact with honesty, trustworthiness, sincerity, confidence — all the traits you strive toward to make yourself a great business communicator. We like people who look us in the eye. Venture capitalists tell me that when entrepreneurs look down during their presentations, the energy drains from their performance.

Presentations fall flat when you can't see someone's eyes. Donald Trump thinks so. During one of the now-famous board meetings at the end of "The Apprentice," a young man named Troy was arguing his case in front of Trump, pleading with the billionaire not to fire him. I remember Trump barking at Troy for relying on notes he had written on a pad. Trump said he hates it when people read from notes. Troy was, indeed, fired.

Setting boundaries
Trump is like most listeners — they hate to watch speakers read. Contemporary audiences are won over by presenters who speak from the heart. Scripts put a wedge between the presenter and the listener, lessening the impact of the message.

Whether speaking to large groups or one-on-one, eye contact is critical. But how long should you maintain eye contact? After all, gazing directly into someone's eyes too long makes the person uncomfortable. You need to build in natural breaks.

Some studies have suggested that in business, maintaining eye contact 70% to 80% of the time will have the most positive impact. I think that's fine for one-on-one business interactions, but in group presentations, you should maintain eye contact 90% to 95% of the time.

Touching everyone
How can you stay focused? Maintain eye contact long enough to register the color of your listener's eyes. In a group setting, that means picking out one person and looking at him or her long enough to register eye color, then moving to another part of the room and doing the same thing. I recommend breaking up a room into three parts and spending equal time addressing people in each section.

That's what Fox News Channel contributor Stuart Varney does. "I constantly move my attention to different parts of the room, from the extreme right to the center to the extreme left," Varney once told me. "I look at different parts of the room to draw everyone into the conversation. I make everyone feel as though I'm talking to them, not at them. I'm not lecturing, but conversing, as we would be doing at a dinner party."

Indeed, how would you feel if the person you're speaking to at a dinner party had her back turned to you or was looking at another person over your shoulder? It's not very engaging, is it? It's all in the eyes.

Getting organized
Planning your talk will also help you give more effective eye contact. Great speakers never fail to devise a plan. They know what they're going to say, how they're going to say it, and how they're going to end it.

A conference organizer who has booked the world's most sought-after business leaders once told me that the best presenters know what they're going to say, how they're going to start their talk, and how they're going to end it. Each of those key moments occurs during direct eye contact with the audience.

If you speak confidently, people will consider you more credible. But nonverbal cues are just as important as what you say. Studies show that in courtroom trials, jurors view witnesses who look at the questioners directly in the eye as more honest and credible.

Speak to me
One study of bank tellers found that those who used more eye contact got higher ratings in customer-satisfaction surveys. What could you accomplish in your professional life if potential customers rated you highly? It starts with eye contact.

Now it's your turn. I've received some wonderful e-mails from readers who incorporate these techniques into their own professional communications. If you have questions, challenges, or success stories of your own, drop me a line. I just may use your story or question for a future column. You can reach me through my Web site, or e-mail me directly. Looking forward to hearing from you!