In this edition of Speak Previews®, ECG Principal Michael Vivion, PhD, reminds presenters of the power of eye focus to bestow attention, a useful tool during a Q&A session.
During a presentation the speaker has the opportunity to be in full control of the discourse, at least as far as the venue allows. The speaker controls the pace, the vocal quality, and other delivery features. The speaker controls the visuals, their length of time on display, what is said about them. The speaker controls the shape and nature of the content.
During the Q&A, however, some of the control of the discourse shifts to audience members who are asking the questions, questions that can range from benign to actively aggressive. Consequently, as the presenter's role shifts from speaker to responder, many elements converge toward maintaining adequate control to ensure reinforcement of the presentation's central messages.
(If the room is set up so it's impossible to share eye focus with the audience, then the speaker has to rely on a different set of skills to control the flow of Q&A.)
One way to assert control is to look like someone in control. Discourage members of the audience who like to think of themselves as predators by not acting like prey.
Begin the Q&A session standing tall, and then use broad, strong gestures. Project a strong, energetic voice. And, most of all, use eye focus assertively. Eye focus communicates attention, conveys it, bestows it.
Some presenters cede control by failing to share eye focus. Instead of trying to connect with each listener, they maintain laser-sharp concentration on the person asking the question, even as they deliver their response. This fixation shuts out the larger audience and opens the door for the questioner to ask an immediate follow-up, to thus take some control of the shape or direction of the discussion. Occasionally this singular focus invites a series of increasingly hostile follow-up questions.
The self-assured speaker learns to diminish the potential for dialogue by sharing focus with the rest of the audience.
Do honor the questioner as the question is being asked—but change your strategy for eye contact at the end of a response. If there's a chair, end your answer by establishing eye contact with the chair, thereby suggesting, however subtly, that the chair might consider calling next on a different questioner. If there is no chair, look away from the questioner and shift your focus to the eyes of other listeners, showing them that you are willing and even eager to engage all audience members. This strategic use of eye focus, maintained even during moments when you are considering a difficult response, delivers a message of confidence and ability to handle all comers.
At the end of a presentation and its Q&A session, the members of the audience should feel that they've had personal and direct contact with the speaker, that some connection has been built. This connection increases both the likelihood that the speaker's purpose will be accomplished and that the audience will leave with feelings of appreciation and respect.
The eyes really do have it!