Eye contact is one of the most powerful and intimate forms of nonverbal communication. Think of all the things you can communicate simply by using your eyes: rudeness, interest, recognition, empathy, love; the list could go on and on. In America, we have been raised to believe that you can trust someone who looks you in the eye. And vice versa. A study of expert witnesses in the courtroom even found that “experts with high eye contact had higher credibility ratings.”
That underlying cultural belief spills over into public speaking situations. When we look directly at our audience members, it portrays confidence and honesty. That leads our audience to believe that who we are and what we say is credible. The following four tips will help you make the most out of this powerful form of communication.
Look at Everyone
Often, speakers will only lock eyes with people they know or with people who are giving positive feedback. While this does a lot to calm the speaker’s nerves, it doesn’t do anything for the audience members who have been left out of the speaker’s selective gazes. Executive coach Jill Bremer says that “skilled speakers … sweep the audience with their eyes, taking a few seconds to “click” with each set of eyes. Their goal is to appear as though they are having a mini-conversation with each member of the audience.” When the speaker makes frequent and repeated eye contact with all members of the audience, it communicates to those listeners that their presence and engagement matters and is noted. Sometimes distance or lighting or audience size will prevent you from being able to make eye contact with all audience members. If you can change that before the presentation, by adjusting the room set up or the lighting, do so. If you can’t, at least make a conscious effort to let your gaze fall on all areas of the room.
Make it Direct
Sometimes people will tell me that they have been taught just to stare at listeners’ foreheads if they are nervous. As soon as they tell me this, I listen and respond while only staring at their foreheads. It usually creates a slightly awkward interaction. I end up asking them, “Could you tell I wasn’t looking directly into your eyes?” After they inevitably answer “yes,” I tell them, “your audience will be able to tell, too.” Direct eye contact is crucial if the communication is going to produce understanding and identification. There aren’t shortcuts or substitutions for direct eye contact.
Expand Your Zone of Interaction
Your zone of interaction involves only the audience members who fall within your gaze when you are standing in the center of the stage or speaking area and facing directly out. Those who are cut off by your peripheral vision fall outside of your zone of interaction. Those audience members who are seated in the front rows to the far left and the far right might feel left out or excluded if you don’t work to make eye contact with them. That means you’ll need to move some and turn your head to include those listeners who are seated outside of your natural zone of interaction.
Pay Attention to Feedback
The first three tips deal with the eye contact that you offer to the audience as a way to engage them. This final tip is about what you gain as a speaker when you make eye contact with your audience: feedback. Research shows that during a presentation, “listeners typically look at the speaker about 75% of the time in glances lasting 1-7 seconds.” However, if you aren’t looking directly and repeatedly at everyone in your audience, you won’t pick up on the messages they are sending you. Confused facial expressions might communicate that you need review something or slow down. Drooping eyelids might tell you that the audience is bored. Smiles might show you that the audience is engaged and enjoying the presentation. Furrowed brows might clue you into the fact that you’ve offended or upset someone.
A responsive audience offers you helpful information, if you are paying attention. And the more direct and intentional your eye contact with your audience is, the more information you’ll receive. And that will allow you to adjust your presentation and respond accordingly, ultimately increasing the efficacy of your message.
Great eye contact is just one piece of the speaking puzzle. Check out our results-driven, online course for more information on how to improve your presentation skills.