When we talk about effective presentation skills, it’s the ‘speaking’ part that comes to mind first. And it only makes sense: it’s not much of a presentation if you don’t say anything! But did you know that aside from your voice, it’s your eyes that are your most powerful communication tool?
Connect and Hold Your Audiences Attention
Eye contact is a critical component of public speaking. Why? Because your eyes are what you use to engage you listeners—to make your presentation personal in a way that makes the listener think you are speaking directly to them. When you engage in a conversation with someone, you look that person in the eye, don’t you? Whether you’re speaking to a single person or a room full of people, the overall desire of the listener remains the same: to feel important, to feel involved in the conversation, and to feel a personal connection. Only when your audience feels that way will you be able to connect with them and hold their attention.
Eye Contact Includes the Audience in the Conversation
Public speaking is nothing more than amplified conversation. You want your audience to feel included in the conversation and the single most effective way to do that is to establish eye contact.
Here’s the thing: Your eyes serve as control devices. When you look at someone, you influence their attentiveness. They will concentrate on you because your gaze indicates you are concentrating on them. Similarly, if you fail to look at the listener, chances are good the listener will not be looking at you (and probably not listening, either).
So how can you effectively use eye contact in your presentations? Here are a few guidelines:
Use the 90-percent rule.
Your goal is to maintain eye contact with the members of your audience at least 90 percent of the time. Don’t let yourself get distracted by your own slide or Power Point presentation (if you’re using one) and don’t let your eyes wander away from the audience as you try to recall the next point in your presentation. Keep looking at your audience and they’ll keep looking at you.
Hold someone’s gaze.
Remember a public presentation is no different than a one-on-one conversation except for the fact there are more than two people involved. For that reason, be sure to make eye contact with as many people as you can during the course of your presentation. Don’t just scan the crowd—stop and make meaningful eye contact and hold each person’s gaze for as much as 3 or 5 seconds and then move on to someone else and do the same thing.
Tap a large crowd’s ‘sweet spot.
Break the group up into quadrants and speak to one person at a time in each section. Focusing on the people in the center of the group, approximately two-thirds of the way back, is ideal in situations where you are addressing a large group. By looking there, much of the audience will think you are looking directly at them. Periodically, focus on someone in the front row and along the sides to avoid looking mechanical.
Know your material so you don’t have to keep looking down at your notes.
There’s nothing wrong with jotting down a few ideas and reminders to guide you through your presentation, but nothing kills a presentation faster than watching a speaker read from his notes. Be prepared—know your message—so that you can actually time when and how often you glance at your notes. Take advantage of natural pauses in the presentation to take a quick peek at your notes while the audience is momentarily distracted.
Take advantage of visual feedback.
Just as your audience responds to the non-verbal messages you send while delivering a presentation, so do they send their own back to you. Look around at the people in the audience. Are they looking at you? Are they frowning at you? As you speak, you need to be able to monitor and have your thumb on the pulse of the group, and be able to respond accordingly to the feedback you are being given by your audience. If they are not looking at you, if they are fidgeting, or if their facial expressions show they are puzzled by what you are saying, you need to figure out why that’s happening and find a way to remedy it as you move through your presentation. Maybe you are fidgeting as you speak, or you’ve said something they don’t understand. Pick up on their non-verbal cues.
Like any other public speaking technique, eye contact is very important and using it effectively takes practice. Don’t let the message you’re trying to promote suffer because you didn’t take the effort to really connect with your audience. And the single biggest way to do that is through good eye contact. Give it a shot at your next public speaking event. You might be surprised at just how important it is and how the effective use of eye contact makes the difference.