Are you here?

Marina Abramovic.jpg

Your presence is essential if you want to make an impact

In her exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, The Artist is Present, Marina Abramović sat silent and motionless and looked at people in the eyes - 7.5 hours a day. For 80 days.

It was a great example of the power of presence to connect people. In photos of the event, Abramović seems to bypass any difference of age, gender, culture and class to connect with the essential humanity of the person in front of her. Every individual seems to be touched in a different way, be it warmth, sorrow, anger, profound self-realisation, gentle acceptance, humour …

Being present isn’t just for artists and zen monks. It’s an inherent capacity we all have. The question is whether we allow ourselves to be present or whether we spend our time drifting away – thinking about this and that, past and future. Presence is when we’re really conscious of being here now. In this place. Like this.

As a speaker, your presence is essential if you want to have a positive impact on your listeners. The simple act of looking at somebody with presence (whether we are speaking or not) can have an effect anywhere on the scale between simply engaging to deeply inspiring. There is no non-verbal act more powerful in public speaking.

Make eye-contact with individuals

The moment you have eye-contact with an audience member, they stop being an anonymous part of a group and become an individual. In that moment, you are both more present and the words you are speaking have a chance of really coming to life, of landing more fully, of having more impact. As Marina says herself:

… we always perceive the audience as a group, but a group consists of many individuals. In this piece I deal with individuals of that group and it’s just a one-to-one relationship.

Seeing an audience as individuals rather than a mass can be a blessed antidote to public speaking anxiety. Most of us feel more comfortable one-to-one than we do in front of a group, and in the heat of the moment, we can forget that our audiences are made up of people like you and me.

Of course, eye-contact in public speaking is different to a piece of performance art by Marina Abramović. We’d probably find it quite weird if a speaker looked at us like that for any length of time. What works in public speaking is a much softer form of eye-contact, the kind which allows for connection but doesn’t become too involved with any one individual.

So the next time you give a presentation or speak at a meeting, try being just a bit more present when you speak, a bit more in the here and now. Allow yourself a little more eye-contact with the people you’re speaking to, and see what happens.

And if you have the chance, go and experience Marina first hand.  Many people in the UK have found her work confronting and responded with cynicism. But if you can stick with it, there is definitely something of value to be gained. The Sunday Times critic, Bryan Appleyard, summarised his experience at one of her exhibitions like this:

“When you do nothing for long enough, you start seeing through the veil of distraction to a new everything.”

Sounds good to me.