How to Improve Your Eye Contact When Public Speaking

Learning how to improve your eye contact when public speaking is one of the most important skillsets you can pick up to connect with your audience.

Giving poor eye contact when public speaking, on the other hand, is one of the fastest ways to lose an audience completely.

An Example of Poor Eye Contact When Public Speaking, and It’s Consequences…

I remember watching a politician come in to give a guest lecture while I was in university.

He was a bit of a mumbler, and had a fairly thick accent, but he seemed to speak with sincerity, and came off as being genuinely fired up about the agenda he was proposing.

And then, at the climax of his speech, when he was preparing for his magnum opus, his home run swing to connect with the audience…

“And let me tell you, from the bottom of my heart, if there is one issue I’m truly passionate about, it’s…”

…And then he broke his eye contact, paused, and looked down at his paper to find the end of his sentence.

It was absolutely disastrous–several students burst out in laughter in response.  The spell was instantly broken, and the plucky, awkwardly charming politician lost any hope of winning over his audience.

Eye Contact When Public Speaking – A Primer

Eye contact is an incredibly powerful tool for connecting with your audience.  It heightens the audience’s attention.  It makes listeners feel like they’re being spoken “with” instead of spoken “at.”

Just how powerful is eye contact?  We all know it’s a big deal, but just how big a deal it is might still manage to surprise you.  In one study, scientists found that consumers were significantly more likely to purchase a particular brand of cereal in cases where the *cartoon character* on the front of the box was positioned to “look” at customers at eye level as they passed by.

Obviously, eye contact has a mountain of other positive effects on listeners.  It’s been shown to make a speaker more memorable, appear more sincere, more authoritative, etc.

Eye contact matters–the better you get at it, the more effective you’ll be as a speaker.

Now, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the do’s, don’ts, and how-tos….

Eye Contact When Public Speaking – The Most Common Mistakes

When I sit someone down to address their eye contact during a presentation, there are a few scenarios that generally come up again and again.

One of the most common issues are from speakers unsure of how to balance strong eye contact with an audience, and the need to read through their written speech.  A lot of folks get nervous that the more time they spend looking out to their audience, the more chance there is of losing their place in their speech.  Similarly, a lot of clients view it as an “all-or-nothing” scenario: believing that the only way to have strong, consistent eye contact is to completely memorize their speech, and therefore not needing to use or glance at any notes at all.

Of course, if you’re entire presentation is memorized, it absolutely does make a steady, powerful rapport with your audience much easier, since you can maintain unbroken eye contact with your audience throughout your presentation.  And rest assured–I have plenty of material available on techniques you can use to help in memorizing your material.

Thankfully, though, it’s complete nonsense to suggest that you can’t establish excellent eye contact with an audience if you’re reading your speech, or using notes.

The secret is simply how to balance the two effectively.

Studies have found that as spending as little as 30% of your total speaking time giving eye contact to your audience can produce dramatic effects on their level of engagement and interest.

What does that mean in practice?

It means that with little to no memorization skill, you can still develop memorable, impactful eye contact, with a few simple tips.

Eye Contact During Public Speaking – Two Things You Can Do To Improve Immediately

Eventually, my goal is to train every student to be able to either complete memorize all of their material, or to only need to rely on a single page with key bullet points–both of which make eye contact much easier to maintain consistently with the audience.

But for most speakers,  that level of memorization is unrealistic.

The good news is that with a few simple tricks, you can still give enough effective eye contact with your audience for it to have a dramatic impact on the quality of your presentation.

 

1)Eye contact during pauses:  Quite a few sources suggest that the ideal time to break eye contact, and go back to your notes, is during a pause or a break in your speech.  This is wrong.

On the contrary, using a pause in your speech to look up and give eye contact actually does several things:  First, it adds to the weight and the resonance of what you had just said, by making the pause more dramatic.  Secondly, It works as a “speed bump,” effectively forcing you to take a longer pause that you might do normally, as you stop to give your audience eye contact.  Lastly, it’s the easiest opportunity to give eye contact for someone having trouble with memorization, since there’s literally no memorization required–you’re only looking around after you’ve already read the end of a sentence.  Once you’ve finished looking around the room, you can always take a quick moment, find your spot, and resume your presentation.

 

2)Eye contact as emphasis:  It might take a little more practice that giving eye contact during pauses, but giving eye contact during moments of you’re speech you want to give some real “oomf” to still isn’t too difficult, and can make an incredibly strong impression on your audience.

The politician from the opening example had tried to memorize his whole speech–giving great eye contact when he went on about economic figures and statistics, only to forget his content and read his “more heartfelt beliefs” from his notes.  He would have been *much* better off if the *only* segment he took the time to memorize were, in fact, those heartfelt beliefs, looking directly at the audience as he gave them as a way to give extra weight and a deeper connection to his most important message.

As a general rule, you want to be giving eye contact when public speaking whenever you are delivering a statement intended to generate an emotional reaction from your listeners, or to “hammer home” a key idea in your presentation.

Of course, the more eye contact you give, the more interactive your presentation will feel, and the more engaged your audience will be.  However, even if you are only giving eye contact during pauses and when delivering your most impactful content, that alone will already be enough to substantially improve your rapport and your connection.

Eye Contact During Public Speaking – Four Things to Keep in Mind

Lastly for today, some important pointers to keep in mind as you seek to improve your eye contact with your audience:

1)Try to not look at any one person for more than 5-15 seconds:  When you’re giving eye contact during public speaking, you want people to feel like you’re connecting with them, not like you’re trying to win a staring contest.

 

2)Mix it up:  If you follow a pattern of eye contact–for example, looking left, looking center, looking right, and repeating–your audience is going to catch on quickly and notice the pattern, and it’s going to become distracting while making you look more robotic and less sincere.  Instead, “go with the flow” and vary your glances throughout the room.

 

3)Be considerate:  If you give someone eye contact when public speaking and they immediate seem to be uncomfortable or look away, just switch your attention over to someone else.  Also, in some cultures, strong eye contact may carry very different connotations, so try to be mindful that no suggestions or solutions are ever “one size fits all.”

 

4)Shift between pauses:  For smooth, natural transitions in your eye contact shifts, you should generally time your transitions from giving eye contact to one audience member to another to occur during a pause in your speaking.  This should also help to keep you well within the 5-15 seconds per person range.

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