Ever sit in the audience, on the edge of your seat, totally engaged with a speaker? You probably feel that the speaker is talking directly to you, even though you’re in a room with hundreds of other people. The difference between an amateur speaker and an amazing, memorizing presenter is eye contact. Eye contact isn’t hard to master; if you know what aspects of eye contact to refine. Keep in mind that your audience can tell when you’re staring off at the back of the room or staring at their foreheads.
The best part about eye contact is that it calms your nerves because you’re no longer speaking to a sea of people. When you make eye contact with your audience, you see them as individuals. Also, when you look at one person, the entire group of people around that person you are locking eyes with thinks you’re looking at them. Yes, it sounds weird that people can tell when you look at them in the forehead, but they feel you’re looking at them when you’re looking at someone two seats away. The difference is your demeanor and the subtle cues you give off. Remember, you communicate with body language and tone, not just with the words you speak. Many studies state that body language and tone are more impressionable that word choice.
Back to eye contact, when you make direct eye contact with members of your audience, they feel involved and you capture their attention through this engagement. Without strong eye contact, you might as well wear sunglasses or turn around and face the back wall because your audience will tune you out without that temporary relationship created with eye contact.
8 Ways to Engage Your Audience with Eye Contact
- Mark Your Spot – Center yourself on stage where everyone can see you. I always recommend skipping the lectern (what most people incorrectly call a podium) because it creates a barrier between you and your audience as well as becomes a crutch for your body movements. Make sure you give yourself space to move around a bit, but you don’t want to pace.
- Look Around the Room – Turn your shoulders and body left and right to look at your entire audience. (Turning your body instead of your head is especially important if wearing a lavaliere microphone.) You want to move from one location of the stage to another, but you don’t want to pace back and forth. Pacing is distracting to the audience because they have to turn their necks back and forth like watching a tennis match and most presenters don’t make eye contact when pacing.
- Work the Stage – I suggest finding three locations on the stage, one near the center, then one on the left, and the other on the right. “Work the Room” by walking to one spot, stand there for a few minutes and finish your thought while turning side to side to look at different members of the audience and making eye contact. Occasionally change your spots, either every few minutes or when you move to another talking point. If doing a list, use your locations to show a change or use the front and back of the stage to denote a change of time or attitude.
- Be Careful Walking Around the Audience – Many new and experienced speakers think breaking the barrier between the audience and you can make you more engaging. Yes, this can help create engagement, however, when done wrong, it irritates and annoys the audience because they have to continually follow you around (another tennis match analogy). If you move off the stage and enter the audience’s space, then stand still for a while just like you would in your three spots on stage. If you continually move around, you won’t make eye contact and you ignore most of the room. Remember, the people that sit in the back do not want the close engagement so coming near them makes them uncomfortable. Conversely, your biggest fans, event VIPs, and people that want to engage you are sitting in the front rows. When you walk around the room, you now have your biggest fans and VIPs looking at your backside.
- Intentionally Make Eye Contact with Everyone – As you plant yourself in your spots and turn your body from side-to-side, look at people. As I mentioned before, eye contact will calm your nerves, especially when you spot people you know in the audience. (If you’re speaking to a room of people you don’t know, get there a bit early to meet your organizer and a few audience members.) Randomly look at people and hold eye contact with them for a few seconds, then swivel and look at someone else.
- Don’t Stare – It takes some time to find the right pace for your eye contact, but a few seconds looking at one person usually works. When doing a dress rehearsal, I suggest including a few colleagues, especially non-technicals like administrative assistants and people in other departments to ensure your message is at the audience’s level. Use this rehearsal to work on your mental clock for eye contact. You want to make eye contact for a few seconds and move to the next person. Locking eyes with someone too long will make them uncomfortable, just like it would staring at someone on the train. Ask the audience of your dress rehearsal to help you fine tune how long to make eye contact as you work to make the timing intuitive.
- Remember the Halo Effect – The best part of eye contact is that it works in groups. If you look to the left, the people in that area feel like you’re looking at them even though you’re only looking at one person. When doing a workshop at a construction company, a project manager summed eye contact up as a grenade, not a rifle. The “splash zone” of the grenade hits everyone in a 10′-15′ radius, not just the person in the scope like a rifle shot. I’m not a gun person, but I share that analogy because it makes sense to a lot of people.
- Know What You’re Going to Say Next – You can’t make eye contact if you’re reading bullet points off the screen. Remember, your audience can read faster than you can speak. Because your audience doesn’t need you to read to them, I suggest never using bullet points (keep it to just 5-7 words per slide). Your visual aid should be a visual thumbnail to jog your memory of what you plan to say, but you need to prepare for your presentation. Preparing includes making your outline, walking through your presentation, practicing it, and doing a dress rehearsal of your presentation. Eye contact requires you to look out from the stage and that can’t happen unless you’re prepared to speak.
Keep these tips about eye contact in mind during your preparation and presentations. You’ll continually improve and you’ll soon notice a difference in how your audience reacts to your new levels of engagement.
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How Speak Simple Can Help You
Win more work, increasing your billing rate, and prospects coming to you are all results of being an excellent presenter. Erica Olson created Speak Simple to help technical professionals to become comfortable presenting and excel at each presentation, whether a bid presentation or an educational, content marketing presentation. Learn more about Speak Simple’s flagship program is SpeakU, a self-guided presentation training program.