What flight attendants can teach you about presenting your pitch

By Elliot Epstein, March 26 2015
What flight attendants can teach you about presenting your pitch

Don't diss the safety briefing or dismiss the cabin crew's inflight service – there's a lot you can learn from them about how to present yourself to your clients.

You’ve boarded your flight and eagerly awaiting take-off, but first there's that safety video to watch – or, in the case of many travellers, to pretend to watch or just outright ignore. (Which is very wrong, by the way).

Apart from paying attention because safety is actually a Good Thing, there are some good lessons an experienced flight attendant can teach and reinforce about professional presenting – here they are.

Lesson one: superb eye contact

If you’re stretching out in an exit row, your flight attendant will hold eye contact with you during the customary pre-flight briefing as you acknowledge his or her message about being able to push out the door in an emergency.

They’ll hold eye contact with you for up to seven seconds and not simply scan over you, look down or stare blankly at the safety card.

Most presenters look at their audience for only 1-3 seconds at a time, which fails to make a subconscious connection with the crowd as you always to appear to be looking for someone else – like a sleaze at a networking function.

Hold eye contact for about 7-8 seconds. Make your point, then move on. Your audiences will feel far more connected. And no, it’s not seen as stalking: just committed to the message and professional.

Lesson two: smile and look interested

We’ve all met Grumpy Bum, the jaded flight attendant who should probably be running a $2 shop in Gippsland instead of doing this job.

We notice them. We talk about them. We deride them to our colleague sitting in 48C.

Your audiences can tell if you’re phoning it in too.

Think about how many times your flight attendant has delivered those safety messages. The professional ones do it right every time and you can’t tell if it’s their 5th or 5,000th flight.

You may have delivered that corporate overview or technical road map a hundred times; the audience hasn’t and they need to see you smile, look interested and engaging as if it’s your first time.

It’s called professionalism and it’s what the casts of Les Misérables, Wicked or Phantom of the Opera do every night without fail.

Lesson three: body language that tells a story

It may be easy to mock the outstretched arms highlighting where the exits are, but there’s no doubt about the clarity of the message and who is drawing the attention.

Most presenters who use their hands gesture slightly inside their body: making them look less convincing and too modest. Put down your coffee, and watch the flight attendant demonstrate.

Nearly all of the gestures are outside the body, which is the natural arc for the story they are telling.

You can command the room with gestures and hand movements outside the body, and the eyes of your audience will follow you.

So, before you put your head down in your book, watch the flight attendant on your next flight and reflect on how you can make your next presentation more powerful.

If you succeed, your audience won’t be looking for the exits.

Also read: Five ways to rehearse your next sales presentation on a plane

Follow Australian Business Traveller on Twitter: we're @AusBT


Elliot Epstein is a presentation coach and CEO of Salient Communication, and trains high-profile corporates to be ‘pitch perfect’ whether they're on the road or in the air.

12 Jun 2013

Total posts 738

How much is this guy paying you to publish his articles?

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2549

No payment involved, Hugo - we believe this is useful content for business travellers, and they remain our primary audience. Readers are free to disagree and not read the article. But I don't take kindly to people making ill-informed assumptions such as you've done, nor with the manner it's been put. Future such comments will be deleted in line with our comment policy.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Nov 2013

Total posts 481


If I could provide some public feedback...

One of the aspects of your site that I value very highly is that both yourself and Chris C are often in the discussion threads being actively engaged in the conversation around your posts - something many other independent media sites fail to do.

You both have domain expertise and validate that via your engagement with your community. 

This is Elliott's second article and I'm yet to see him engage with this community with a comment response... This is despite his original article providing him with a number of opportunities to engage with his/your audience.

Just now I posted a comment that I'm not sure I agree with his 7-8 second eye-contact suggestion - I would like to hear from Elliott as to why he feels this is such a recommended time? He is a communication expert afterall...

cheers Mark

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Nov 2013

Total posts 481

You having a bad day Hugo? This is out of character for you...His first article got some interesting comments flowing and really, this article raises some very good points - though eye contact for 7-8 seconds...not sure I agree with that one...

Dont make fools of yourselves.  What this guy is saying is spot on. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

17 Aug 2012

Total posts 2212

It's funny because it's true. The sheer number of people who cannot give a presentation is staggering.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

15 Aug 2012

Total posts 171

I agree!  I think it's good to have a variety of articles covering all aspects of travel such as this piece. Especially as there's many in the business world who struggle with public speaking. It is a real skill and what has been reported has cost airlines millions in research, consultants and training of there staff.

Good article and great to have variety.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

16 May 2013

Total posts 25

Ever flown United Airlines ?

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

13 Dec 2012

Total posts 53

As a frequent traveller, when it comes to the safety presentation, I always put down my papers, iPad or papers.  I work on the Vaccination herd theory (which is about having a very high proportion of the community vaccinated to prevent an outbreak).

I can probably recite them, but if I stop, hopefully those around me might stop, and in the event of an incident, at least I might have a better chance of survival if those around me act in the appropriate way.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

15 Aug 2012

Total posts 171

Good Point Jason. Some may remember a Hijacking on an african airline. The plane ended up running out of fuel and crashed into the ocean. Many on board survived the flight but inflated there Lifejackets in the plane, started floating, couldn't swim out and drowned.

If they had just listened to the one line, 'inflate jackets only on leaving the aircraft', there would've been many more survivors.

Not that theres anything wrong with Gippsland btw =P

Thanks for the prompt markpk!

I won't respond to Hugo except to say it's a free country and he is, as you say, probably having a bad day.

Now, the 7-8 seconds of eye contact that proved contentious is actually very important. There are a lot of poor techniques bandies about such as ''lighthousing' or 'scanning briefly' across people's eyes or looking at the back of the room.

7-8 seconds is the approximate time to deliver a complete thought.

When you hold eye  contact for that length of time the audience member 'feels' you connected to them and is more likely to trust your message and you.

By contrast, try having a conversation by looking at your shoes for 3 minutes and note the disconnection.

The expression 'look me in the eye when you say that' is not meant as'briefly 'look me in the eye.

Sustained eye contact = sustained connection

Thanks for all your comments and the retweets on Twitter too


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