Your eye contact impacts your ability to connect with your audience and, by extension, your effectiveness as a speaker. In this article, we offer simple strategies for producing more eye contact and better eye contact.
Eye Contact is Natural… isn’t it?
Eye contact is (or should be) a natural technique for speakers. Nearly every day, we have conversations with friends and family that are greatly enhanced by shared eye contact, and we are barely conscious of it, if at all.
Unfortunately, this “natural” ability dissolves for many speakers when they stand in front of a crowd. There are so many places for our eyes to go, as if they are powerfully pulled in different directions by enormous magnets. Why look at audience members when you can look at:
- your precious notes,
- the interesting pattern of ceiling tiles,
- your beautiful slides,
- that glowing EXIT sign in the back of the room, or
- any number of other things in the room
Why do speakers look at these things? Because it can be uncomfortable to look at the audience. Doing so confirms they are looking at us, and that can make us feel vulnerable! Oh, how cruel! (I jest… but only a little.)
Eye contact alone will not make or break your next presentation. Great eye contact won’t save a poor presentation, and poor eye contact won’t doom an otherwise fantastic presentation. Compared to your content, eye contact is clearly secondary.
However, eye contact is a valuable delivery tool you can use to enhance your presentation. Effective eye contact improves your connection with the audience, and that is always a good thing. So, let’s examine a few simple things we can do to produce more eye contact and better eye contact.
How to produce more eye contact
First, you have to keep your eyes off of all those other things in the room. How do you do that? Well…
- Prepare better.
Most speakers (myself definitely included) look up, down, or to the side when struggling to “find the right words” to express a certain thought. Do it once or twice — no problem. Do it for minutes at a time (or worse, the entire presentation), and you risk disconnecting from your audience. Better preparation means you spend more energy and focus talking, and less time thinking of what to say.
- Avoid eye crutches.
When you put lots of text on your slides or write out your entire speech on notes, your eyes will gravitate there no matter how hard you resist. This is true even if you know your material. Take these crutches away. (Some notes are fine, but if you must read from notes, practice the reading techniques recommended by James C. Humes in Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln.)
- Warm up early to the audience.
Most speakers have poor eye contact at the beginning of their presentation, improving only as the bond with the audience improves (e.g. they start to laugh, nod, and engage). This is natural for humans; it’s hard to connect immediately with total strangers. So, warm up to your audience as early as possible. How? I find the best way is to meet as many of them as possible before your presentation begins. By the time you start speaking, at least some of them won’t be “strangers” any more.
- Keep the lights on.
Dim rooms tend to produce drowsy audience members. If their eyelids are shut, they can’t connect with you. (Occasionally, your slide visuals demand turning the lights low, so it’s a tradeoff.)
- Ensure clear sight lines.
As much as possible, set up the room and position yourself to avoid barriers between your eyes and those of your audience.
- Get closer to audience members.
Do what you can to reduce the physical distance between you and your audience members. If the setting allows it, encourage them to sit in the front rows. Move their chairs closer during room set-up. Step forward in the “speaking area.” Getting closer makes the setting a bit more intimate, like those 1-on-1 conversations with friends where eye contact comes easy. [Nick Morgan writes about how moving closer improves your audience connection.]
How to produce better eye contact
It isn’t enough to simply lock eyes for a period of time and consider your job done. Eye contact is not something you can measure against a target quota. (“Ah, I’ve stared at my audience for 71.6% of my speaking time… success!”)
- Express emotion with your eyes.
Eye contact establishes a communication path, but it is only valuable if you deliver meaning. Keep your eyes alive. Show happiness, sadness, surprise, excitement, confusion, or whatever emotion matches your words at a given time.
- Ensure eye contact as you deliver all critical lines.
Nobody expects you to sustain eye contact for an entire 60-minute seminar. (It is fatiguing!) However, be sure to elevate the effectiveness of key lines by making sure you are looking at your audience. This includes your opening, your closing, and all other critical lines throughout. If you couple this with expressing suitable emotion, the impact of your words will be much stronger.
- Avoid ping-pong.
If your eyes bounce left and right across the room as if you were watching a tennis match, you’re doing it wrong. Instead…
- Sustain eye contact with someone for a few seconds, then move on.
Aim to sustain your eye contact for a few seconds, or about the time it takes you to deliver an average-length sentence. There’s no magic minimum or maximum; you’ll just know. (If you really have trouble, solicit feedback from a trusted colleague. Ask them if your gaze is too short or uncomfortably long.)
- Connect with your audience’s eyes, if possible.
When the size of your audience and the venue allows, aim to connect directly with their eyes. (Don’t look at their bodies, over their heads, etc.) This isn’t always possible (e.g. large venues; stage lighting) so don’t sweat too much either way.
- Focus on the audience member during Q&A.
When fielding questions, be sure look at the person as they speak. Show them that you value their contribution. (Bill Clinton is a master at this.) Continue to look at them as you begin your response, but then transition back to the entire audience.