What does your public speaking eye contact say about you? Are you conversing or are you connecting when you speak in public?

Eye contact when you speak in public is of great importance. The truth will be revealed in your eyes. Like it or not, our eyes give us away. They give people a real insight into what we are thinking and feeling. And eye contact is an essential tool for making a connection and establishing credibility with your listeners.

In our everyday communication, eye contact feels so natural we don’t even think about it. But when people speak in public they become conscious of their eyes and tend to do all sorts of things with them, often not even realising. Common examples of ineffective eye contact include;  looking up at the ceiling, down at your feet or anywhere else except into the eyes of the listeners.

Where do I look and what do I do with my eyes?

These are common questions that beginning public speakers often ask about eye contact when speaking in public. Here are a few tips to ensure that your eye contact is natural and effective.

#1  Look at people, not spaces

Pick out individual people in different parts of the room and talk to them whilst you are looking into their eyes. You can establish a connection with that one person and the people around them will also feel involved. Never take the soft option and look at some object or space at the back or front of the room or the empty rows. Using eye contact in a presentation doesn’t always feel natural or comfortable, so looking at nobody, in particular, can be tempting. Avoid staring at empty chairs!

# 2 The more you look at the audience, the more likely they’ll pay attention

As an audience member, have you noticed that when the speaker is looking towards you, all of a sudden the material becomes more personal? And others around you then think that they might be the next one to be looked at and they don’t want to be caught out not paying attention. Maintain your level of eye contact throughout your speech.

# 3 Monitor the pingback from the eyes of the audience

While public speaking eye contact should be focused on one person for a second or two.  Often the person will nod or smile in response. Often they don’t realize that they’re doing it, but it makes you feel better – believing that they are listening to you.  That’s a positive pingback, a non-verbal cue from an audience member that says “Hey you’re doing ok, I like what you’re saying”.  That positive reassurance and confidence feeds back into your presentation. Don’t be put off though if you don’t receive a positive signal, just move onto the next pair of eyes.

# 4 Engage the audience with your eyes and they will stay engaged

Somehow when you engage the audience effectively through eye contact they are likely to stay engaged and as a result they will take in more of what you are saying. With a small group, eye contact is a little easier to maintain. Presenting to a large audience brings additional challenges. You can’t establish the same connection with the entire room. Keep your eye contact steady and consistent and if you get this right from the start you are more likely to have the audience interesting from the start.

#5 Public speaking eye contact is not one size fits all

How you go about making eye contact with your audience, depends to an extent on the size of your audience. If you have a very large audience it is obviously not possible to look them all in the eye. You will need to tailor your approach for the size of the room and the number of people in the audience. If you have an audience of around 20- 30  people it is achievable and ideal that you will make eye contact with each of them.

One thing you should avoid with your public speaking eye contact is sweeping your eyes around the room trying to take in everyone, this gives the appearance of one of those laughing clowns at the fair.  You end up trying to look at everybody and succeed in looking at no one.

When you have a larger area to cover you will need to spread your gaze around the room. Make sure to give each section of the room equal time and energy. Look at someone on the left side for a few seconds, then someone in the middle, then someone on the right. Don’t forget the people in the back!

When looking at the back of a large room, it’s okay to focus on a section or a head in the distance rather than try to make direct eye contact with someone far away. They will feel as though you are looking at them even if you are looking at a small group.

 #6 Share it around

Make sure that you share your eye contact evenly. Avoid favouring one side of the room over another, or one group of people over another. The ones you focus on will appreciate it, but those you look at the least will switch off (as it’s the same as showing less respect for someone).

#7 Avoid reading from your notes

Many speakers prefer to use notes. You will need to work much harder to maintain that connection with your audience. Never read from your notes. Use them occasionally to prompt you for your next point. Always use a natural pause at the end of an idea, sentence or section to glance down at your notes. Always look up and reconnect with your eyes before you begin speaking again.  If you can master the use of notes whilst maintaining effective eye contact this will probably satisfy the audience to the point that they won’t be distracted by the notes. Despite the fact that you may be able to pull if off, try if you can to go without using notes.

#8 Be natural – Don’t overthink

How long is long enough? How long should I make eye contact with the audience? These are common questions.  You don’t want the eye contact to be like a blink, you want the contact to be long enough so that you are holding that persons gaze for several seconds as you look into their eyes and speak to them. There is a natural point in your speech such as a pause or a change of idea, that is a natural point in which to smoothly shift your gaze onto the next person.

The best advice I have concerning public speaking eye contact is – don’t think too much about it! Don’t try to remember who you have looked at and who you haven’t or when is a good time to move on to look at another person, just let it happen naturally. After some practice of speaking in public, this becomes natural and you won’t need to think consciously about it. There is no magic figure of how long is long enough to maintain eye contact with one person. My rule of thumb is – long enough to connect but not long enough to be creepy!

#9 Smile with your eyes

Don’t forget to smile, when you smile your eyes smile too. Smiling eyes are warmer and softer and allow a deeper connection. If you want to look and feel relaxed, start off with a simple smile and the eyes will appear natural too. Relax and your eye contact will become unconscious again and appear natural. That is when you will have that connection.

So the best advice above all – Try not to think about your eye contact! Imagine that you are having a conversation with many people and look at them as though they are your friends.

Preparation and practise will allow you to feel good about your speech and able to relax and be in the moment. If you are nervous and unprepared it will show in your eyes. Do you know the deer in headlights look? Try to avoid that look, by putting in the time and effort to practice and refine your speech so that your eyes can reveal a calm confined and relaxed speaker. Remember your eyes reveal a lot about you.

Effective public speaking eye contact is the difference between conversing and connecting. Successful presenters are able to use this to their advantage and use eye contact to add a connection to your communication.

About the author

Lisa Evans helps leaders and entrepreneurs to craft compelling business stories and become exceptional speakers. Lisa is a certified speaker coach, TEDx speaker coach, four times author, NLP practitioner, graphic recorder and visual storyteller, and improvisational actor. 

She has coached thousands of leaders across a range of industries, including resources, banking, finance, engineering, retail and sales as well as not-for-profit and community associations. 

If you wish to take advantage of a complimentary session in order to chat about how you can become an exceptional and successful speaker with a stand-out brand, then use this link to book a time to chat.

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