When you look people in the eye, you establish rapport. You make an impact. You send a compelling message. A sustained and purposeful eye contact is crucial in public speaking because it gives you a chance to create a good impression. It can mean all the difference when you’re trying to get the audience on your side.
Why You Should Meet the Audience’s Gaze
The audience is an important element in public speaking. A presentation will lose its purpose if there are no spectators to validate it. This is why you need to make your speech worthy of your listeners’ time. You can do this by establishing a connection with them through eye contact.
When you meet your audience’s gaze, you’re essentially showing them interest and respect. You’re acknowledging their presence. You’re making yourself relatable and accessible to them. Eye contact can make you vulnerable—and that, in turn, can make you seem more human to those whom you’re trying to reach.
There are other reasons why eye contact is crucial.
1. To establish connection
One sincere look in the eye and you can communicate to the audience just how much you care about their thoughts. A sustained eye contact is an invitation to turn your talk into a conversation. It creates a bond between speaker and listener—a connection that is reassuring to both parties.
2. To improve concentration
A large room full of people can ruin your concentration. By limiting your focus to just one person at a time, you can calm your nerves and clear your mind. Don’t let your eyes wander around the room lest your ideas get all muddled up. Keep your eye contact steady so you can concentrate on your message.
3. To project authority
Have you ever spoken with someone who averts his gaze every time he talks? It’s not surprising if that person gained little, if any, of your respect. No one can blame you if your thoughts stray while that person talks to the floor.
With eye contact comes authority. So if you can’t look people in the eye, you can’t expect them to believe your words or agree with your views. The eyes can communicate confidence and conviction—two things that you won’t be able to project unless you look people squarely in the face.
4. To facilitate engagement
People will feel welcome to participate when they see you scanning the crowd. They’ll be at a liberty to nod, frown, smile, and raise their brows. If you look at them long enough to create a bond, you’ll find a spark of recognition in their eyes. In that precise moment, you can transform them from being passive receivers to active participants.
What You Can Learn from Professional Speakers
Presentation gurus should know what makes or breaks a presentation, and all of them agree that eye contact is a big determiner of a successful speech.
1. See your audience as individual listeners
Before you speak, take a moment to pause and scan the room for friendly faces. Connect with distinct listeners whom you feel are willing to engage with you. Forget yourself and focus on one audience member at a time. You’ll be more conversational and confident if you do so.
2. Involve everyone in the conversation
Don’t play favorites. Instead, connect with as many people as possible. If you’re dealing with a large crowd and it’s impractical to make eye contact with everyone, divide the audience into sections and just choose one member from each group to connect with. The people in his or her area will feel included even if you don’t look at them directly. Just remember to randomly shift your gaze from person to person. Don’t follow a pattern; otherwise, you’ll come off as unnatural and predictable.
3. Sustain eye contact long enough to make a connection
How long does it take to make a genuine eye connection? According to Toastmasters, a global organization dedicated to developing public speaking and leadership skills, it takes no more than five seconds to establish proper contact. Five seconds is usually the time it takes to finish a thought, so there’s minimal risk of losing your focus if you follow this tip. Also, five seconds of sustained eye contact can slow down your speaking rate.
4. Avert your eyes when a person grows uncomfortable
Not everyone appreciates being looked at directly in the eye. While it’s true that eye contact is a universal communication signal, there are certain exceptions that you should consider. Some cultures and norms find eye contact offensive under certain circumstances.
For instance, in Middle Eastern cultures, it’s considered inappropriate for people of the opposite sex to look each other in the eye, as that can denote a romantic interest between them. In Asian cultures, however, eye contact is seen more as a sign of disrespect, especially when the contact is made by a subordinate to his or her superior. This is because most Asian countries are largely authoritarian. For African and Latin American cultures, eye contact is interpreted as a sign of aggression and confrontation, since these societies uphold a strong hierarchy.
Julia Minson’s words are fitting for this situation. She reminds speakers “to keep in mind that trying to maintain eye contact may backfire if you’re trying to convince someone who has a different set of beliefs than you.” Minson is an assistant professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Final Advice: Practice Makes Perfect
If you’re not used to it, making eye contact can be challenging. You’ll feel exposed and vulnerable while staring into someone’s eyes. But nothing can be fixed with constant practice and application. Try to look people in the eye every time you communicate, and sooner or later, you’ll get accustomed to the peculiar sense of connection that comes with it.