Two months of research. Check. Two weeks worth of outlining, illustrating, writing, and rewriting. Check. Two days devoted to memorizing and rehearsing. Check. Two hours devoted to putting together a really slick PowerPoint program. Check. Two eyeballs. Two eyeballs?
There is no doubt that a lot of time and effort goes into putting together an important presentation. Sometimes a lot can be riding on how your presentation is received by certain people, so all the effort is definitely worth it. But it can sometimes all be wasted for the lack of two eyeballs – yours – that could be helping you sell your message, but instead they are staring at the back wall or at the ceiling or at your shoes or at your notes. They should be focused on your audience.
Sometimes, as presenters we worry too much about what we have crammed into our heads, and not enough about what is going on with our heads, by which I mean our facial expressions and the use of good eye contact. There is so much power in the expressions of your face. You can communicate literally hundreds of emotions – and messages – using only the muscles in your face. Also, the messages are universal. In one famous study, researchers showed photographs of dozens of Westerners, each with a different expression on his or her face, to tribesmen in remote villages in Papua New Guinea. None of these simple bushmen had any trouble at all identifying the feelings being communicated in every picture.
People get tired of hearing me say this, I’m sure, but the fact is the power of your presentation is rarely in your content; it is in how you deliver your content. People aren’t just listening to your words; they are watching your body language, especially your face. Even if it is only on an unconscious, subliminal level, people read the expressions on your face and in your eyes and begin to form opinions about whether they will trust what you say, or not.
What messages do you want your facial expressions to communicate? You want to project a positive image – warmth, friendliness, confidence, caring, openness, acceptance, and sincerity. Keep a variety of smiles at hand – from big, gregarious grins to playful nods and winks – and you can’t go too far wrong. Whatever you do, avoid frowning, scowling or just standing there with a neutral, flat expression on your face. Your facial expressions will either draw people in, or drive them away.
A big part of the power of facial expressions comes from those two eyeballs I mentioned earlier. An effective presentation relies heavily on making eye contact with every individual in the room. Your eyes say so much! Even more than a smile or a frown, your eyes reflect what is really going inside you. People are constantly reading your eyes as a way of looking into your heart. If you want people to trust you, look at them! Don’t be afraid to make eye contact with them.
During the course of your presentation, try to connect with as many people as possible. Try to maintain eye contact with each one for at least 5 seconds, but don’t lock in on one person too often or too long. Don’t mechanically scan the room like a security camera – you know, sector one, sector two, sector three, back to sector two. Let your eyes casually, but purposefully, roam from person to person. Sure, they are all hearing your words, but making eye contact helps make your message personal for them. Even if you lose your place and can’t remember what you were going to say next, don’t stare at the floor or the ceiling, keep on making eye contact. People are likely to think you have just paused for effect. And when anyone connects with you, maybe even giving you a smile – be sure to smile back!
By making eye contact, you are saying, “I am talking to you, I care about what you think and what you are hearing. Do you get it? Are you with me?” People can’t build a relationship with a PowerPoint slide, but they can build a relationship with you. Let people see in your face and in your eyes that you not only care about your content, you care about them, and that will make all the difference in the impact of your presentation.