Public speaking tip: Make eye contact with your best friend and your worst enemy

Beerily bouncing through Copenhagen’s town square the other night with Simon Lund-Jensen, an organizer of the speechwriting show I spoke at last week, I heard myself spit out what immediately struck me as a damn good public-speaking technique that I’ve been using all along.

Or is it, instead, just the natural reaction of everyone who ever gives a speech?

You’ll help me know.

Very near the beginning of every talk I give, I locate one person in the audience—and she’s always out there—who idiotically agrees with everything I say even before I say it. She’s nodding and smiling, laughing and clapping, even when I’m only taking a drink of water. Without thinking about it, I find her and note her location, for she is, and will be for the rest of the speech, My Mommy.

Just as unconsciously and inevitably, I find her opposite. The dude who loathes me on sight, who has me pegged as a glib, smug hotshot. He sits with his arms folded—gee, I wonder if he realizes that his body language indicates that he’s closed off to my message?—making a point to glance at his watch whenever I catch his glare. And catch it I must, because Mr. Jerky must be dealt with too.

For the rest of the speech, when I need a little confidence that at least someone out there loves me, I look at My Mommy. Worst-case scenario, I catch her with her mind wandering, and she immediately snaps to attention and smiles real big and approving. Her smile says, “You’re wonderful.”

At other moments—usually when I’m about to make a real strong point, or say a defiant thing—I look over at Mr. Jerky, and I lay the thing on him straight. Sometimes I win him over, sometimes I just realize I’ve got nothing to fear from the guy: I’m up here, Buster, and you’re down there.

And really, those are the only two people in the audience with who I look at. Occasionally someone else will laugh particularly hard at something I say, and I’ll give them a glance. Or I’ll catch an odd look on someone’s face accidentally. But mostly, it’s just Mommy and Jerky, Mommy and Jerky, from beginning middle to end.

And in the end, I usually win. Because Mommy leads the applause, and Jerky, however grudgingly, is forced by peer pressure, to join in. And everybody else in the audience, I have to hope, is somewhere safely in between.

You can’t please everybody. But as a speaker—and as a writer too, come to think of it—you need to deal with Mommy and Jerky both. —DM

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