Everyone knows you are supposed to “maintain eye contact with your audience” when speaking in front of a group.
But that advice has embedded in it the reason many of us struggle: we try to force eye contact and make it something we should do rather than an authentic by-product of our presence.
The best public speakers carry on a conversation with the audience. Conversations mean eye contact – ideally one-on-one.
Think about it: if you are with a group of five friends having lunch, each person talks or comments and, as they speak, the others look at them. Most of the time the speaker looks back.
That’s it. That’s the secret to eye contact when presenting: get as close to a small group feel as possible.
How? For many of us the experience is so intimidating!
Certainly there are situations that make the following strategies harder – dark rooms, bright lights, cameras. But most of us are presenting to smaller groups, in relatively informal settings, and the following approach can dramatically improve your public image in a day or two.
- Don’t think about “the audience.” Think about one person at a time.
- If you can, seed the audience with friendly faces – scatter them around. Use those faces as your home base, your eye contact anchors.
- Did you know that most people can’t tell whether you’re looking at the bridge of their nose or looking them straight in the eye? Audiences are the same. If you make eye contact with four different people, scattered in an audience of 400, the entire 400 will come away thinking you were speaking directly to them.
- Find a face, whether friend or unknown, and complete a thought while looking straight at them. What is a “thought” you ask? The smallest logical component of your speech. So if you were having lunch you might say to one person, “Man – I was so busy this weekend. We went to the game on Saturday and then Sunday had to drive to LA for a friend’s wedding.”
- Is that perhaps more than one thought? Maybe. But it’s the opening logical statement in a conversation. Your friend may respond, add their own commentary, ask a question etc. You’ve given them enough to go on…
- Ideally you’d look out into the audience, find a face, and speak directly to that person for a roughly equivalent amount of time and content.
- These “thoughts” are most likely bullets from your presentation. Use the “touch, turn and talk” technique when presenting live: With your body angled to your slides (often on a screen to the side of you), gesture and touch the next concept. Then turn to face your audience and finally speak that next logical concept. If you’re presenting online the “turn” portion requires that you face the camera on your computer and speak into it – rather than at your slides or a separate monitor.
- Then pause. Pauses are very important to public speaking. Let things sink in. Give yourself a beat or two – you can be thinking about your next logical chunk of information while the audience digests.
- Then turn to another face and deliver the next logical thought. “On the way to LA we stopped for a walk on the beach and had some awesome fish tacos.”
- Rinse and repeat, ideally moving around the audience – side to side, front to back. As you grow more comfortable you’ll be able to get direct feedback from the faces with which you engage. You’ll see your jokes hit home (or miss), confusion, the desire to speed up or slow down. The tighter that feedback loop the better you’ll be.
A great way to practice eye contact is to get three or four friends to watch you practice a presentation. Have them hold up one of their hands and, when you look at them, they should slowly count down from five, folding one finger at a time. Their hand should be next to their ear, so you can make eye contact but see their fingers with your peripheral vision.
You’ll get a visual cue to the passage of time. When all their fingers are gone you should wrap up your current thought, pause, and move your eyes to another person in the group. Then start again. After a few rounds you’ll stop focusing on the hand and get a feel for the rhythm of the approach. Then you won’t need the hand.