One challenge that many public speakers face is making eye contact.
You might think something so natural as eye contact should come easily… and you probably don’t give it a second thought most of the time. When you’re delivering a speech or presentation, though, eye contact might suddenly seem far more difficult. Who do you look at? For how long? What if you need to check your notes?
It might be tempting to think that eye contact isn’t such a big deal … but while it won’t turn a terrible speech into a great one (or ruin an otherwise stellar presentation), good eye contact has a number of crucial benefits.
The Key Benefits of Making Eye Contact
Eye contact improves your connection with your audience
By making eye contact with individuals, you improve your rapport with them – and help them to feel that they’re important to you.
Eye contact can be persuasive
People will be more likely to agree with you, or say “yes” to your idea, if you make eye contact – because you’ve built that rapport and also because making eye contact increases how reliable and believable you seem.
Eye contact helps your audience to stay focused
If you don’t look at your audience, it’s easy for their attention to wander. Making eye contact helps them to concentrate on what you’re saying.
Eye contact will help you to speak more slowly
This, too, helps your audience to focus on what you’re saying, and it helps you to come across as confident and capable.
Preparing to Make Great Eye Contact Before Your Speech
Getting eye contact right isn’t just about what you do during your speech … it’s also about what you do beforehand. To ensure that you’re setting yourself up for success, aim to:
Be well prepared
As Foundr explains, when it comes to presentations, practice really does make perfect. Preparing in advance helps you to deliver a talk that flows – not a stilted one where you keep flicking desperately through your notes.
Avoid reading from a script if possible
It’s hard to keep up eye contact when you have to keep glancing down at what you’ve written … plus reading your notes verbatim can be tricky to pull off well.
Meet your audience before your presentation begins
It’s much easier to “warm up” to your audience and make authentic eye contact if you feel like you already know them. If possible, arrive in advance to greet and shake hands with individual members of the audience: that way, they won’t feel like strangers.
Move closer to your audience, if possible
While this may not always be practical, if you can, encourage your audience to sit in the front rows, and position yourself at the front of the speaking area. This makes for a more relaxed feel to your presentation … which should help you make eye contact.
Tips for Making Effective Eye Contact With Your Audience
Divide Your Audience Into Zones
Some speakers find it helpful to divide their audience into zones, especially with large audiences. You don’t want to end up only making eye contact with the front row.
Make smooth transitions between the zones, rather than flicking your gaze around from place to place. Try not to be too systematic, though, as it can look unnatural if you always look at the left side of the room then the right side, or if you go round in a circle.
Wait for a Reaction
When you make eye contact with an individual audience member, don’t move on instantly: wait for a reaction from them to show that you’ve made a connection. That might well be a nod of agreement or a smile.
Hold Eye Contact For About Four or Five Seconds
If your audience member doesn’t seem to react in any way to eye contact, don’t carry on staring at them. You don’t want to make them uncomfortable … and even if they don’t mind being stared at, it might well make other people in the audience uncomfortable if it seems like that’s what you’re doing.
Move on at an Appropriate Moment
Where possible, try to move away from eye contact at appropriate moments within what you’re saying. For instance, you might shift where you’re looking at the start of a new sentence, rather than two words into a sentence. This way, eye contact can act as a form of visual punctuation for your speech.
Make Eye Contact During Critical Lines
You don’t need to use eye contact constantly throughout your speech. It’s fine to look down at your notes or to glance at your slides from time to time. Try to keep up eye contact, though, during the most important parts of your speech – the introduction, the conclusion, and key lines throughout.
Keep Your Eyes Up As You Finish Each Sentence
Many speakers have a natural tendency to drop their eyes as they finish each sentence – but try to keep your eyes up until the sentence has fully landed. Check your notes silently, then when you’re ready to continue, look up and make eye contact again.
Respect People Who Don’t Seem Comfortable
Some people may not feel comfortable with eye contact. This could be for a number of reasons (their culture, their personality, they may not be neurotypical, or they may simply be having a tough day). Don’t ignore them, but don’t spend too much time looking directly at them either.
Look at People During the Q&A
When someone’s giving a question, focus on them to make it clear you’re listening. Keep looking at them as you begin your response, then transition back to the rest of your audience.
Look at People’s Heads in Large Audiences
If you have a huge audience (or if you can’t actually see people’s eyes due to the lighting being very bright or very dim), then just look at people’s heads. This will still work, so don’t worry about not being able to make true eye contact.
Use Your Audience’s Reaction to Guide Your Presentation
Eye contact invites people to engage with you – but what if they frown, shake their heads, or roll their eyes? You might feel wrong-footed … but try to see their responses as a positive thing, allowing you to address what they might be thinking. For instance, you could say something like, “I know these statistics may seem hard to believe, but we’re going to come onto some more studies that back them up in just a moment.”
Like any aspect of public speaking, using eye contact to enhance what you’re saying is mostly a matter of practice and preparation. Don’t discount how important it is for a great, memorable presentation, and use the tips above to make sure you’re using eye contact effectively. It may feel awkward at first … but the more you practice, the easier and more natural it’ll become.