"When the mind is not present, we look and do not see; we hear and do not understand; we eat and do not know the taste of what we eat." ~ Confucius, "The Great Learning"
Have you ever been driving, and suddenly realized that you were at your destination and you didn't remember the journey?
Have you ever sat down to eat lunch and, because you were so busy doing other things on the computer or talking on the phone, you suddenly realized your food had vanished and you barely remembered eating it?
It's a common occurrence that we get so wrapped up in our thoughts that we are not aware of what's happening around us. We go about our day not seeing, not hearing and not tasting. We do the same thing as speakers.
We can get so caught up in what's going on in our minds and bodies that we neglect to be in the moment with our audience.
As I mentioned in this post, there are usually about a million things going on in our heads as we stand up to speak. And along with all the logistical chatter, we're also obsessed with every physical aspect of nervousness: the flip-flopping stomach, the quivering voice, the gelatinous knees.
With all this going on, how can you possibly pay any attention to what you're saying, seeing and hearing, and how your audience is responding?
First, breathe, relax and ground yourself.
I'm not saying it's easy to do these things. In fact, being grounded and aware of what's going on around you can be quite difficult. As with any practice, the more you do it, the easier it gets.
This practice allows you to still feel what's going on in your body and note what's going on in your head without being distracted by it all. (Here's an article about the Buddhist practice of mindfulness that might be helpful.) Then...
Once you're grounded and breathing, look at the audience. See them as individuals. See faces instead of a blurry mass. Smile. Make eye contact. Make a connection.
Instead of just talking, racing to the end of your presentation as fast as you can, listen to yourself. Really hear what you're saying. Slow down enough that your mouth doesn't get ahead of your brain, or ahead of your audience's brains.
When you hear what you're saying, you are less likely to lose your place or your train of thought. And you're more likely to speak slowly and clearly enough that your audience understands and grasps your message.
Like eating and not tasting, you observe the audience without noticing or internalizing their response. Are they listening? Are they paying attention? Are they engaged? Or are they looking out the window, playing on their Blackberrys, doodling in their notebooks?
Experience your audience. Savor your audience! (Okay, getting corny now.) Notice their response to you, digest it, understand it, and do what you need to do to adjust your material or delivery to increase their engagement.
Being present, being in the moment is not easy. But it's worth it for the increased rapport and relationship you build with your audience and for the greater enjoyment and comfort you will feel on stage.