Even a newbie at public speaking knows they should make eye contact.
But the term eye contact is rather vague. It can infer just making fleeting “contact” with a person then moving on. Don’t make eye contact – make “eye connection”. Eye connection means spending time with each person so that person feels like you’re just talking to them. Eye connection has two major benefits:
- People in your audience will feel that you have genuinely connected with them and that you care about their reaction.
- Because you’re talking to people as if you were in a one-on-one conversation, you’ll come across as conversational. That makes you easy to listen to and engaging.
Here are my tips on how to make eye connection:
1. See people
A lot of people we work with confess that they don’t really see individual people in their audience. They’re just aware of a blur of faces. If you can relate to this, next time you present, experiment with seeing people. Look at their facial expressions, look for their reactions to what you’re saying. We call this ‘listening to your audience.”
2. Shrink the room
Imagine that the person you’re looking at is the only person in the room. For those few seconds you’re having a one-on-one conversation with just that person. This has two benefits. You’re likely to talk in a more conversational style because you’re drawing on the conversational skills you already have. It may also reduce your nervousness because you’ll no longer feel like you’re talking to this big audience – but just to one person.
3. Find out how long it takes to make genuine eye connection
It can be difficult to judge how much time is enough to make eye connection. And you may be concerned that if you spend too much time with one person they’ll start to feel uncomfortable. To find out how long it takes, gather together a few friends and deliver your presentation. Ask each person to rest their elbow on the table and raise their hand (resting the elbow is so that their arm doesn’t get too tired). Ask them to drop their hand when they feel you’ve made eye connection with them. You’re likely to find that the length of time needed to make that eye connection is longer than you think.
4. Move to another person at an appropriate time
If you carried out the experiment above, you probably found that your friends dropped their hands at the end of your sentences. That’s also an appropriate time to move onto another person. By doing this you’re adding “formatting”. In a written document there’s punctuation, paragraphs, and headings to guide the reader. In a presentation, the presenter adds the formatting by the way they deliver. The movement of your eyes is one way to add verbal formatting.
Note: If you tend to talk in long sentences, you may find that making eye connection with one person for a whole sentence is too long. If that’s the case, move to another person at the end of a phrase. (And work on making your sentences shorter – that will make it easier for your audience to digest what you’re saying.)
5. Look for the reaction
After important points look for the person’s reaction to what you’ve just said. If the person feels like you’ve been talking to them, they’ll nod. People nod when they’ve processed what you’ve just said. “Waiting for the nod” is an effective way of pacing your delivery to the rate at which your audience can take it in.
6. Keep your eyes up at the end
The most powerful time to have your eyes up is at the end of a sentence. Unfortunately, it’s also the time when you’ll be most tempted to drop your eyes so that you can look at your notes. Discipline yourself to keep your eyes up till you’ve finished your sentence, then look down. Look at your notes in silence. When you’re ready to continue, look up, find someone to talk to and then start talking.
7. Don’t be a lighthouse or a tennis umpire
A lighthouse presenter goes systematically around the room. A tennis umpire presenters looks first to the left, then to the right. Mix it up – be random!
8. Respect people who are uncomfortable
Some people in your audience may show that they’re uncomfortable with eye connection by looking away. Different cultures have different norms regarding eye connection. Respect that by spending less eye connection time with them – but don’t ignore them!
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Very good points. However, when I coach, I run into those who just can’t look people in the eyes. I have taught them to look at foreheads. It has worked great. The audience still thinks the speaker is looking at them. Other rules above, such as #7, still apply.
Yes, there are people for whom any sort of eye contact is uncomfortable. Often this involves cultural factors. For example in my part of the world (New Zealand)older Pacific Islanders have difficulty with making eye contact. In that situation, looking at people’s foreheads is a last resort alternative.
However, if I’m working one-on-one with someone who has trouble making eye connection, I will work with them to gradually have them feel more comfortable with it. For example, I’ll ask them to just glance at me as they’re talking with me. Then once they’re OK with that, I’ll get them to look at me for a second – and so on.
If you’re reading this and you know you have trouble looking at people, choose to work on this. Practice making eye contact in your everyday interactions with people. Then progress to eye connection. It will make a huge positive difference in the way that people perceive you.
Hello Tripp – I was previously told when presenting to look just above peoples heads. This may be beneficial if nervous at the start of the pitch but I am not sure it really connects with people. I have worked to avoid doing this now.
I’m amazed how many people have been taught to scan instead of truly connect. I love the way you put it as a lighthouse or tennis umpire. I’ve found when you can get a presenter to slow down and connect with an individual for an entire thought (through the end of a sentence), it not only reduces their nerves, but it instantly changes their tone from formal presentation to more conversational. Great post. Thanks.
Yes, it’s magical what a difference that change can make, Olivia.
This is great advice on eye contact, which highlights that everyone knows it’s important but everyone doesn’t know the nuances and the range of options for doing it effectively. I particularly like #2, as I think once a presenter can really think about their audience as individual human beings, rather than just a big blob of people, it makes such a difference in attitude, tone and manner.
I really agree with Kathy. I know that all of these things are great tools for becoming conscious of connection, but in the end it’s the connection you need, not the ability to make it LOOK like you are connected. One reason people aren’t connected with their audience is that they are too self-conscious and too worried about what other people are thinking about them, the speaker. Would love to hear some discussion on how to get beyond that one from your experience.
“Make eye contact with your audience” has got to be the simplest advice that is so easy to screw up.
“Don’t make eye contact – make eye connection.” Olivia, that’s a perfectly succinct way to highlight your key message here!
I can’t wait to try out these tips in my next presentation.
I really need this contact in my life, but it doesn’t work with me. Thank you for these tips I’ll try to apply them! regards.
I completely agree. I love that you are promoting genuine eye contact rather than “lip service” eye contact. As a fellow public-speaking trainer I find that this is the single thing that makes the biggest difference in terms of making a real connection with an audience and in terms of making the speaker feel safe (there’s some interesting research on this I can let you have if you’re interested – or you can check out the piece that I’ve just written about it on my blog).
Very valuable, especially about 2. Shrink the room, so please add me in your communication note in future for Presentation topic, thanks.
Thanks for this nicely written Article !!
I have the same problem of not making making eye-contact. Let me tell you sth about me . I am good person at heart. People love myself being around them. I somehow manage interacting people who are my friends and I am very frank to them . Even if I do not make I contact properly , I do manage it with my happy mood, smiling face and speaking appropriately. But when it comes to stranger or anybody of higher authority I cant manage this. I tell you one incident. Few days back I needed to talk to my manager with few people around. He is good funny and lively person. When I went talk to him I was not able to make eye contact with him. Result was , although he know I am a good person , he seemed to have lost interest (or say belieive ) in what I was saying. With his expression I myself felt like I am lying to him.That was embarrassing to me. So I kept wiping my face and forehead to hide my embarrasment. I know that was not a good thing to do.But I was clueless . I felt that sometimes , people who take their time out to devote concentration to listen to me gets irritated with this. Thats obvious for them to do this , but this leaves me feel embarrassed. You can say that I am shy kind of personality.Can you help ? I want to conquer this.
It’s funny when I read the tips I pictured myself in presentations and recalling what I had done in the past..haha..Great tips.
If i make an eye contact with my friends in my class seminar, they make me laugh. What should i do to not to laugh on the stage?
Thank you for this post. It is needed now in 2019 more than ever as we spend more and more time focused on our devices, even while someone is speaking. We will definitely be touching on this with our students.
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