My Turn: A Better "I" Contact
Giving speeches is difficult – especially when you are blind.
By Janet Perez Eckles, CTM
Your book changed my life,” one of my readers wrote.
I receive many letters of praise about my writing. But when it came to speaking to an audience, angst roiled my stomach. I was eager to talk to groups about my messages of hope, inspiration and encouragement. In order to move forward in my craft I knew I had to improve my oral presentation skills.
“You have to connect with your audience,” blurted my friend, a well-established speaker, adding, “You need to have emotion, gestures, facial expressions and voice variation.”
She paused. “And it’s equally important to have eye contact.”
Gulp. Eye contact? That task presented a huge obstacle. How does a blind person like me have “eye contact” with an audience I can’t even see?
I plunged into the task the same way I had faced every difficulty since I’d lost my sight – with prayer, planning and a good dose of perseverance.
And I joined a Toastmasters club. On the day I was to give my first speech, a member guided me to the front of the room. With clammy hands and a racing heart, I shared a five-minute Ice Breaker. When I was finished, another member helped me to my seat, and I waited for the evaluation. Not bad – it was sprinkled with positive comments and encouraging remarks.
Then came a blow I didn’t expect: “Janet, we need to find a way for you to continue to face the audience,” the evaluator said with kindness in her voice.
“What…what do you mean?”
To my embarrassment, I learned that during my speech I’d inadvertently turned my body and ended up facing the side of the room rather than the audience. A hot surge of humiliation burned my face.
I needed to find a way to remedy this. And the perfect solution was to request a table or lectern to use as a reference point.
Though that problem was solved, the eye contact part still remained an issue. Another strategy came to mind. Right before I had started into my Ice Breaker, I had asked the audience to respond to my greeting. When I heard their voices, I knew exactly where they were seated. So I turned in that direction when I spoke. I put the same plan into action for all my future speeches.
But the message itself needed planning as well. Most speakers have the luxury of using notes when they’re at the lectern; I hadn’t learned Braille, so I tossed that option out. I needed another solution to help me remember the outlines to my speeches. Word-for-word memorization was dangerous – if I forgot a portion, I’d be stuck.
A more effective route was to use acrostics: I would take a word such as happy to remind me of the five main points in my outline, with each topic represented by the first letter in the word chosen (h-a-p-p-y). To my delight, I found this method added clarity to my message.
I found the use of props also highlighted my message. In one of my talks, in order to symbolize a point I was making, I placed two plastic spray bottles similar in shape and size on the table before me. Then I related a recent episode where, in haste and inability to tell the difference, I had grabbed the bottle of what I thought was hair spray. After mists of generous proportions dribbled over my head, I noticed my hair becoming wet rather than exhibiting the usual hold. Puzzled, I called out to my husband, “What kind of hair spray is this?” “Honey, that’s the jewelry cleaner we bought at the mall,” he replied.
Drawing on encouragement from fellow Toastmasters, I found new ways to add creativity and pizzazz to make my message impactful enough that the audience focused on that and not on the fact I cannot see.
“You’re getting a standing ovation,” whispered a friend as she helped me to my seat after a recent speech. This honor, though humbling, reinforces why it’s so important to persevere in life. But it also demonstrates something about audiences. Each person listening to my message has a unique reason for being there. It might be to receive bits of insight, inspiration or practical ways to move beyond struggles and pain, but each person is there for a reason.
And when I sense those needs, my focus is clear. And even though I can’t connect with their eyes, my message connects with their hearts.
Janet Perez Eckles, CTM, is a national speaker and the author of Trials of Today, Treasures for Tomorrow: Overcoming Adversities in Life. She is a member of the Osceola Toastmasters club in Kissimmee, Florida. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.