If there is one simple thing you can do to enhance your impact as a presenter and persuade others to see things as you see them, it’s sustained, meaningful eye contact with your audience.
Positive eye contact helps you build rapport with your audience and keeps them engaged with your presentation. It also gives them a sense of involvement and conveys your message on a personal level.
Here are the key benefits of eye contact followed by tips on how you can improve yours during a presentation.
One sincere look in the eyes of an audience member can communicate how much you care about their thoughts. Sustained eye contact is an invitation to turn your talk into a conversation. It creates a bond between speaker and listener, a connection that is beneficial to both parties.
When you look someone in the eye, they are more likely to look at you, more likely to listen to you, and more likely to buy into your message.
A room full of people, with all the different lighting and sounds, can be very distracting. Deliberately focussing your eyes on different audience members will help calm your nerves and clear your mind. Keep your eye contact steady so you can concentrate on your message.
When you look someone in the eye for three to five seconds, you will naturally slow down your speech, which will make you sound more authoritative.
Have you ever spoken with someone who averts their gaze every time they talk? It’s hard to believe they know what they are talking about and you might find yourself undermining what they are saying.
With sustained, focused eye contact comes authority. If you can’t look people in the eye, you can’t expect them to believe your message or agree with your point of view. Good eye contact can communicate confidence and conviction (even if you are not an expert on your presentation topic).
People will be more willing to participate in the speech when they see you scanning the crowd. You’ll notice them nodding, frowning and even smiling. As a result, your audience are transformed from passive listeners to active participants.
If you don’t focus on different audience members or are looking at the floor (or your slides), the audience are less likely to engage with the presentation and start thinking about something completely different - you’ll have effectively lost that participant as they are no longer listening to what you are saying.
Before you speak, take a moment to pause and scan the room for friendly faces. Connect with listeners who you think will engage with you and focus on one audience member at a time. You’ll be more conversational and confident if you do so.
The key here is to connect with as many people as possible. If you’re dealing with a large crowd and it’s impractical to make eye contact with everyone, divide the audience into sections and just choose one member from each group to connect with. When shifting your focus from one area to another, don’t follow a pattern otherwise you’ll appear unnatural.
According to Toastmasters, the organization dedicated to developing public speaking skills, it takes no more than five seconds to establish proper contact. Five seconds is usually the time it takes to finish a thought, so there’s minimal risk of losing your focus if you follow this tip. This can also help you slow down your speaking rate.
Not everyone appreciates being looked at directly in the eye. While it’s true that eye contact is a universal communication signal, there are certain exceptions that you should consider. Some cultures and norms find eye contact offensive under certain circumstances.
Most speakers look to the ceiling or floor when struggling to find the right words to explain a thought. If you do this for long periods of time, you risk disconnecting from your audience. Better preparation means you spend more energy and focus talking, and less time thinking of what to say.
Nobody expects you to sustain eye contact for an entire 30 minute presentation. However, be sure to highlight key points with strong eye contact. This includes your opening, your closing, and all other critical lines throughout. If you combine this with expressing emotion, the impact of your words will be much stronger.
Most speakers have poor eye contact at the beginning of their presentation, improving only as the audience begins to engage with the presentation. This is natural for humans - it’s hard to connect immediately with total strangers. A good tip is to meet as many of them as possible before your presentation begins by greeting people at the entrance. By the time you start speaking, at least some of them will be on your side.
Keep in mind that the length of eye contact varies by culture. Some cultures use eye contact more than others. If you're giving a presentation in a culture other than your own, make sure you investigate the cultural norms and behaviour of the people in your audience.
For example, in Middle Eastern cultures, it’s considered inappropriate for people of the opposite sex to look each other in the eye, as that can denote a romantic interest between them. In Asian cultures, however, eye contact is seen more as a sign of disrespect, especially when the contact is made by a subordinate to his or her superior. This is because most Asian countries are largely authoritarian.