Last Saturday, I attended a meeting with local community leaders. The fact that it ran long – over 3 hours – was painful. But what made it particularly difficult was this: most of the speakers didn't talk to me. Or, frankly, anyone else either. Here’s what happened …
I was sitting around a long conference table with about 20 other adults. Plunked in the middle of the table was a box of Starbuck’s coffee. The room was hot. Someone floated copies of the agenda and the first presenter stood up.
He was slim with graying hair. He cleared his throat and began to speak so softly that I leaned forward in my chair. He kept his eyes glued to the paper in his hands. He was so intent on covering what was written there that we, the audience, were superfluous. I sat back, realizing he could have emailed the info out to us with equal effect.
He finished and the second presenter, a woman in a red cardigan, stood up. She was less intent on reading her notes but she glanced up for just one reason: to make eye contact with the person seated across from her. She seemed to genuinely care about the topic, speaking at length and with passion. But her delivery was directed to a single recipient. I glanced around the table. Folks tapped at their phones. Like me, they had checked out.
Then the third presenter, a 50s-something man with glasses, pushed back from his chair. He began to speak, making eye contact with all of us. He drew us into the material with conviction. The cell phones went away, folks leaned in to the words, and soon enough we were behind his cause.
Eye contact is one of many simple tools you can use to rally an audience. I recommend picking 3 anchor people in the audience located to your far right, far left, and center. (Don't pick someone who's Tweeting or already disengaged.) Instead find someone who is smiling at you or nodding as you speak. Take turns looking at each anchor person while you speak. The other folks (seated between them) will catch your eye automatically.
Will eye contact alone win converts to your side? Of course not. But failing to see – and therefore connect with – people in the room will lose them every single time.