One of my competitors at the 2017 Toastmasters Division-level International Speech Contest froze for an excruciating 45 seconds in front of everybody. Then they tried to regain their place, managed a few single-word restarts, but continued to sputter for another 15 seconds.
What Would You Do If You Froze On Stage?
Here’s what world-renown speaking coach Patricia Fripp has to say (timestamp: 1h, 33m, 40s):
Correction. Good eye contact makes your audience think you’re a badass!
Whether you’re speaking to your board of directors, investors, customers, employees, or competing at a Toastmasters International Speech Contest, good eye contact makes you look confident! As Chris Anderson, TED Talks Conference curator, observes in his article How To Give A Killer Presentation in Harvard Business Review:
“Perhaps the most important physical act onstage is making eye contact.”
Speech contests are great for pushing your comfort level
After winning the 2016 Toastmasters International Division-level speech contest, I spoke with my competitors about competing, speaking, and eye contact. My competitor, Sarah, said she only briefly looked at people in the eye when she was speaking, darting around the audience for 7 minutes. She said, “I’m afraid to look at anybody for very long because I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable.”
I know what Sarah means, I felt the same way when I first got into Toastmasters. But the truth is, it was ME who initially felt uncomfortable making what felt like overly-extended eye contact.
And in order for your audience to trust you – to believe you and your story – you’ll need be ok with feeling uncomfortable while practicing making good eye contact. What can seem like overly-long eye contact for you, will come across as comfortable – normal – in your audience’s eyes.
My favorite barista on making eye contact in the real world
Elise works at Naked Lounge coffeehouse in Sacramento, and I asked her if she has any problem looking customers in the eye when she’s taking their order. “I’m fine when I’m the one taking the coffee order, when I’m the barista,” she said. “Sometimes the customer will have a hard time looking me in the eye. And some customers stare too long.” “On the other hand,” she noted, “if I’m at a concert and the singer looks right at me during a song, I can’t take it. I cringe and squirm. I have to look away.”
She went on to explain that she learned how to get good at making eye contact in her college communications class. Now, when she’s on stage or was presenting in front of students or serving coffee, she kicks ass. Otherwise, getting looked at can sometimes make her feel uncomfortable.
Good eye contact has a high return on investment (ROI)
Competing in a speech contest or speaking in front of judges and an audience at Startup Weekend Demo Day – and looking like you know what you’re talking about – takes practice. You want to come across as competent and confident during two very different situations:
Making eye contact while you’re speaking
Making eye contact while you’re getting back on track after you lose your train of thought
Looking investors in the eye, while desperately trying to remember what you were going to say, takes practice. No one should know that you lost your place or you’re drawing a blank. This is why practicing (Toastmasters Prepared Speeches and Table Topics) is so important. Toastmasters provides a safe, practice-oriented environment for you to practice speaking – and messing up – so you can be a superhero in the real world.
It’s vital to have a safe haven to experience messing up. Once you know how your body and mind react in the moment, messing up is less of a surprise. And you’ll have a chance to practice how to pause, take a breath, and get back on track.
What’s the return on investment of practicing making good eye contact? Your audience will more easily believe you and your story. As a byproduct of practicing making good eye contact, and messing up, you will be able to recover under fire (unlike world-famous film director Michael Bay during his meltdown on stage at CES 2014). And you will come across as confident. Confidence goes a long way toward:
Convincing investors to fund your startup
Encouraging audience members to share your message with their friends and family
Stanford article says eye contact makes you look confident
Matt Abrahams’s article in Stanford Business, A Big Data Approach to Public Speaking, highlights Noah Zandan‘s key takeaways from analyzing 100,000 presentations: “…approximately 83% of human learning occurs visually. Your nonverbal behaviors such as stance, gestures, and eye contact are critical not only for conveying and reinforcing your messages, but they serve as the foundation of your audience’s assessments of your confidence.” As Zandan continues:
“In North American culture, audiences expect eye contact, and quickly feel ostracized when you fail to look out at them.”
How the hell do you get good at making eye contact?
If you’re in Toastmasters, take world-class public speaking coach Patricia Fripp‘s advice: stand at the front of your club’s room and, silently, stare at one person right in their eyes for 10 seconds. Then stare at the next person. Then stare at the next… until you’ve stared at every person in the room for 10 seconds each. Invite all club members to stand at the front of the room and do the same. Set aside 10 minutes so every club member will get a turn. This exercise is like straining to lift weights. And it only makes you stronger!
You will discover that some techniques for practicing your speech work well, while others do not. My approach for practicing a speech is unique to me, so it’s important for you to gather advice from others as well. Research which patterns, practices and procedures work best for you to present a 5-7 minute speech, without notes, while coming across as confident and natural.
I added Ryan Avery‘s advice and write my speech in as close to poem form as possible. Then I took the advice of a number of World Champions of Public Speaking, like Ed Tate, and I memorize every word (for a 5-7 min speech). I then take my printed-out speech outside to my practice area and practice my speech out loud at least 6 times. This is my first of many run-throughs to get a feel for the stage and timing.
I’m also going through my stage positions while practicing out loud. I discovered that my stage positions also help me remember my next line/story.
After practicing my speech in my practice space over a week (3-6 times per day), then I don’t need my printed-out speech anymore. The speech has become part of me because it’s been marinating throughout my practice sessions.
At this point, I start doing an exercise that Ed Tate recommends: saying my speech at 2x it’s normal speed. It’s tough-going at first, but I find it very helpful.
There also comes a time when I don’t practice my speech at all – because I’m sick of all the damn practice. I take a break and come back to it a week later. This break, like a much-needed vacation, does wonders for being confident and sounding natural.
World-renowned speech coach, Patricia Fripp, advises that writing out your speech in a logical sequence helps you remember it better.
Step 1: Getting feedback from local Advanced Toastmasters clubs
A couple of brutely-honest – and painful to hear – District 39 Advanced Club evaluators were concerned that my District-winning speech wouldn’t hold up to the competition I was going to face 3 months later at Semifinals on Aug 22, 2013 in Cincinnati, OH. Turns out they were right! The 3 months between District and Semifinals, my speech changed by 50%. It was much more work, time and stress than I anticipated. Plus, I had to create a completely new speech to present during the World Champion of Public Speak competition!
I watched – and re-watched – previous World Champion of Public Speaking winners on YouTube: Jim Key (2003), Randy Harvey (2004), Lance Miller (2005), Jock Elliot (2011) and Ryan Avery (2012). To my surprise, the previous-year’s winning speakers had overly-large gestures, were quite animated and covered the whole stage. Not something you’d ever see in a board meeting or from a politician running for office. But for an inspirational speech delivered in front of 2,000+ attendees you need to act over-the-top because most of the audience can barely see you.
After reviewing World Champion’s winning speeches, it reminded me of silly, over-the-top, Vaudeville performances. But that’s simply because I had been used to presenting Toastmasters speeches in actual board rooms and small venues (15-150 people). The World Champion of Public Speaking contest is in a convention hall that is literally the size a football field, and filled with almost 2,000 people. You have to look alive and be entertaining!
Step 2: Re-crafting my District-winning speech for the International competition
Right off the bat, I was in trouble! My evaluators presented a long list of good reasons that my District-winning speech was going to get clobbered at the next round of competitions. I made 4 big changes:
Edited my speech to be more International in its appeal. Since I live in California, I needed to delete/replace any local, cultural and colloquial references that an International audience – and International judges – may not easily relate to.
Altered my speech from mostly-narration to a good mix of narration and dialog.
Since my evaluators said I came across as very preachy, I had to figure out a way around this.
One of my evaluators, Tobias Stockler, helped me clarify the analogy for my speech title A Good Harvest. After grilling me for a few minutes I frustratingly replied, “A Good Harvest is like a farmer trying to raise good crops.” “Perfect.” he said, “Now the audience will know how to relate to the idea of A Good Harvest.”
I also added Patricia Fripp’s and Ryan Avery’s “circular technique” (a matching opening & closing). I cut out less-obvious references to my core message, reduced 4 story lines to just 2, reduced closing calls-to-action from five to one, created a more central tagline message (“reach out and mend a broken fence”), and added a “WHY” to the story (“happiness”).
Added more dialogue.
Added reference to book title in dialogue.
Added Patricia Fripp’s “Circular technique” (opening/closing speech with the same sentence, story, stage location).
Reduced my calls-to-action at the end from 5 to 1.
Reduced the amount of stories.
Spread storylines across different parts of the stage.
Added simile/metaphor: “Divorce is like a broken fence”
Added a call-to-action at end: “Reach out and mend a broken fence”
Added definition/analogy of A Good Harvest: “Like a farmer trying to raise good crops, parents trying to raise good kids.”
Deleted references to getting arrested and Dad calling every Sunday.
Added alliteration: “shorts and a short-sleeve shirt”
Added “why” I apologized to my ex-wife: to be happy.
Added “why” a good harvest is important: raises value of society.
Added alliteration/description of Dad: shorts and short-sleeve shirt.
Be prepared to make last-minute changes to your speech. At International, 2 hours before the contest, our Contest Chair informed us to address her as “Madam Contest Chair.” This “address” was completely different from the standard “Mister/Madam Toastmaster” that I was used to at my club and local speech contests.
A big thanks to the following District 39 members for their evaluations and support: Danny Pastores, Ceci Dunn, Zack Souza, George Jarosik, David Zic, Rick Pierce, Tobias Stockler, Rick & Marcia Sydor, Herb Long, Susan Hawbaker, Cliff Brackett, Tracy Harrison, Brian Hatano, Ruth Maloney.
What really helped me parse all of the feedback I was receiving, and to put it into context, were District 39’s previous winners: Russell Marsan (2012 District 39 Winner), Jeffrey Purtee (2011 District 39 Winner) and Jim Brennan (World Champion runner-up, District 39).
Step 3: Practicing for a much larger stage
Five weeks before the International Semifinals, I found an outdoor practice space in Midtown Sacramento, CA: 50 feet wide and 15 feet deep. And although it was outside in the glaring sun (or pouring rain), it was perfect. And the occasional foot-traffic helped me get used to distractions, as well as a few people that stopped and watched for a moment and asked what in the world I was doing – LOL.
Practicing staging and full-out body language took much more energy than I thought it would. The first time I practiced for an hour-and-a-half, and I was exhausted from the sun, jumping up and down, going through larger-than-life animations and just plain covering a lot of ground. A nice workout for sure:)
Editing my speech after an Advanced club evaluation had to include editing my staging as well. Does a new line of text put me on a different part of the stage? Am I going to end up spending too much time on one side of the stage?
I had to get use to the stage as one of the characters in my speech. I also had to allow for the extra time that walking across the stage takes up. In my 5-7 minute speech, I discovered that moving around on the stage adds approximately 60 seconds to my speech. So I had to cut out 60-seconds-worth of content to accommodate setting scenes/stories at stage-left, center-stage and stage-right.
World-renowned keynote speaker, Patricia Fripp, presented “It’s a Mystery Every Speaker is Not Awesome” at Saturday’s (Nov 3) District 39 Toastmasters 2012 Fall Conference in Rancho Cordova, CA (near Sacramento).
A Hall of Fame Speaker, Patricia presented a couple of tips for the Toastmasters audience, including:
For sales people: selling is “explaining the result.”
She took a screenwriting class so her speeches would be more story-like. Stories are more memorable and sharable.
It’s better to be personable than perfect.
Start your speech at 80% gusto, so your speech has room to grow in intensity.
Patricia memorizes the opening and closing of her speeches, leaving the middle to pick-and-choose from various bullet points.
It’s a Mystery Every Speaker is Not Awesome With Patricia Fripp, CSP, CPAE
Are you a good speaker looking how to be great? How about a great speaker ready to be awesome? As you know, great presentation skills are no longer a nice skill to have – they are the difference between business life and death. You will learn it’s not a mystery to create awesome presentations.
However, you must have:
Laser Sharp Specificity
In this action-packed, content-rich, keynote you are guaranteed to discover techniques to improve your presentations. No matter where you are in your speaking development you will walk away knowing HOW to design and deliver “An Awesome Presentation.”
Our keynote speaker is Patricia Fripp, CSP, CPAE Hall of Fame keynote speaker, business presentation expert, sales presentation skills trainer, and highly sought-after executive speech coach.
Named “One of the 10 most electrifying speakers in North America” by Meetings and Conventions magazine. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance wrote, “The sixth best investment in you is to attend a Patricia Fripp speaking school.”
Companies and executives who want powerful, persuasive presentation skills that ensure them a competitive edge call Patricia Fripp!
Patricia Fripp was the first female President of the National Speakers Association; the second woman to ever keynote a Toastmasters national convention; and is a partner in World Champions Edge coaching community with four Toastmaster International World Champions