One of the most challenging parts of speaking, at least for me and many of the new speakers I’ve experienced, is maintaining good eye contact with the audience so that everyone in the room feels included.
Maintaining eye contact with a room full of people is unnatural and can be uncomfortable, however with these five tips you can do it like a pro.
1. Choose Your Starting Pair of Eyes
Our ancestors, when faced with an open plain, would dart their eyes about to look for predators. Although one hopes the room you’re speaking in is free of predators who might want to eat you, we still have an instinctual habit of darting our eyes about a room.
Therefore, you need to consciously prevent yourself from doing this. The best way is to choose a person, preferably someone sitting in the center-middle of the room, and speak to that person first. Featured Speaker Nancy Daniels suggests treating the audience as if you were having a conversation in your living room. This means looking people in the eyes, starting with one person.
2. Move About the Room Randomly
When having a conversation in your living room, I doubt that you meet each guest’s eyes in a logical pattern. The same should be true when you are speaking from the stage. Don’t move your eyes about the room in a sequential pattern. Mix it up a bit and make eye contact in a random, but relatively evenly balanced pattern about the room.
3. Square Your Body with Each Person
Jeremey Donovan, in his October 22, 2012 post on SpeakingSherpa.com suggested this tip and I love it. “Imagine that you and another person were standing and having a conversation,” he wrote. “How awkward would it be if you were positioned sideways and talking to them with your head turned? So, why would anyone do that during a presentation?”
Of course, you want to balance this movement and make it strategic. If turning squarely to a person will weaken your point or cause some awkwardness in your posture, don’t do it.
4. Build Rapport with Movement
One way we build rapport with people we are speaking with is to move closer. You can use this technique in speaking by moving in the direction of the person you are making eye contact with. Again, like squaring your body, if this movement will weaken your point or cause some awkwardness in your posture, don’t do it. Be strategic about your movement and don’t use this tip with each and every person you maintain eye contact with.
5. Keep Eye Contact Brief
There have been several times that I felt like a speaker was giving their presentation to me more than anyone else in the room. It made me feel uncomfortable and, frankly, made it hard to pay attention to what they were saying. (Side note: I’ve been told by at least one speaker it was because I was smiling and therefore was a friendly face in the crowd.)
You don’t want to make your audience members uncomfortable and you certainly want them to pay attention. So, a rule of thumb is to maintain eye contact for about the length of a sentence. This usually averages out to about 3 to 5 seconds. Using your sentences as a guidepost gives you a natural place to switch to someone else in the audience. And it is a whole lot easier than speaking while counting seconds in your head!
These five tips, when used together, can help your audience feel included, ease your anxiety and give you natural ways to change your posture and get you moving strategically about the stage.