I was just seventeen years old when I took my place on the stage behind the lectern. I could feel the heat rising in my body, slowly at first, then suddenly it was like I was plunged into a hot dunk tank of fear and anxiety. My heart was pumping out of my chest and I was certain the thump, thump, thump was being amplified through the microphone. Expectations and pressure wrapped around my neck so tight I could hardly breathe. It all happened so fast. I glanced at the sea of peers and parents. They were all staring at me. I instantly felt exposed, judged, and paralyzed. I clung to the words on the page in front of me and the rest of my speech is a blur.
When I was learning to lead from the front of the room, I got lots of advice. Not all of it was good. Maybe you’ve heard this before: Look at the back wall instead of the audience. While it is a strategy, it’s catering to your fear.
Each time you turn away at the height of your fear you perpetuate it and make it impossible to conquer.
I’d rather give advice that has you confronting your fear instead of catering to it!
Avoiding eye contact can cause the audience to question your intentions. They might think you are nervous, unprepared, or even disingenuous. But most of the time, it creates the impression that you are not confident, and if you are not confident in what you’re saying, how can the audience be comfortable enough with your material to absorb it, and confident enough themselves to accept it?
Not only that, but you sacrifice connection with your audience when you squirm to avoid looking at them and connection is the key to getting your message across! If you don’t connect with your audience you’ve just wasted your time and theirs and your efforts were futile.
Looking someone in the eyes is an act of intimacy, connection, and acknowledgment. For a public speaker, making eye contact means you are confident. It reassures your audience of your credibility. Seeing the audience means you’ll have to come out from hiding. You’ll have to be seen and that is exposure of the most vulnerable kind.
But, at last, the truth is that the audience already sees you, whether you are looking at them or not; the question is: what will they see when they look at you? Doubt, fear, and uncertainty? Or confidence, strength, and assurance? Which would you rather exude in front of your audience? You never get a second chance to make a first impression, either. So, you must start strong, stay strong, and finish strong.
Your strength is expressed in your eye contact. If you find ways to avoid your audience you will never develop the relationship you need to be influential, impactful, and get your message across.
So DO NOT take the stage trying to avoid being seen. Instead, accept that it is a privilege to be at the front of the room. You are powerful and you do good work. Own yourself; own the room; own the material, and most importantly: own the moment. You got this!