Eye contact is one of the most powerful tools you have to build connection with your audience. However, far too many speakers squander the opportunity by looking back at a screen, up toward the ceiling, or down at the floor.
Here are 10 simple public speaking tips that will make you a master of eye contact.
Tip 1: Before you speak, pause and connect with distinct listeners
I recently watched Douglas Wilson’s runner up speech in the 2006 Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking. After being introduced, Mr. Wilson strode across the stage, stopped, and shook the hand of the emcee. He then took a few steps to his starting position on the stage. Once he squared his body, he silently and deliberately turned his head to the left side of the audience, then to the middle, and finally to the right. Rather than scanning, he paused with each turn of his head.
Mr. Wilson’s dramatic pause gave him time to connect with his audience and to build anticipation for his speech. The only change I would recommend is to go left-right-middle or right-left-middle so that your head movement ends in the position where you wish to begin your speech.
Tip 2: Pick the person you are going to speak to at the start of your presentation
Even experienced speakers have a tendency to let their eyes dart around the room for the first 30 seconds of their talk. This behavior is instinctual; when our early ancestors stood in an open field, they needed to quickly size up their surroundings to keep from being eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger.
Though the tigers are gone, the defense mechanism is alive and well and must be intentionally overridden. Expert speakers pick the particular person they are going to speak to at the start of their speech. This person is generally in the center-middle of the audience.
Tip 3: Maintain eye contact with individuals for 3 to 5 seconds
There is one sure fire cure for looking up or looking down when speaking. The fix is to make eye contact with individuals for 3 to 5 seconds. This is the same practice you naturally follow when engaging in normal one-on-one conversation. Any longer and you make the other person feel uncomfortable. Any shorter and you look less than trustworthy.
Should you count one-two-three, one-two-three when speaking? No, that is of course impossible. Instead, it turns out that 3 to 5 seconds is the duration of a full sentence or a thought. Make it a practice to engage in eye contact with a new individual only between sentences.
Tip 4: Square your body with the person you are making eye contact with
Imagine that you and another person were standing and having a conversation. How awkward would it be if were positioned sideways and talking to them with your head turned? So, why would anyone do that during a presentation? Beats me, but plenty do.
Tip 5: Move toward the person you are making eye contact with
In one-on-one conversation, you tend to stand closer to people you care about. You can apply this same principle to build rapport with your audience by moving toward the person you are making eye contact with.
Tip 6: Make eye contact in a random pattern
Occasionally, when I run public speaking seminars, people take my “make eye contact with everyone in the room” advice very literally and start shooting ducks in a row. Instead of engaging your audience sequentially, make eye contact with people in your audience in a more or less random pattern.
Tip 7: While reenacting a story, maintain eye contact with the other characters in the scene
This is another best practice that I observed in Douglas Wilson’s award winning speech. At the beginning of his speech, he tells a story from his childhood about falling out of an oak tree. He fortunately caught his leg on a branch and was rescued by his nearby father. Taking one knee, he acts out both his younger self and his father.
Playing his father, he looks down and to the right and says “I thought I had lost you. I love you son.” Changing character, he turns his head up and to the left and says “I love you too, dad.” During the story, Mr. Wilson never breaks character. In the course of reenacting a story, maintain consistent eye contact with the other characters in the scene.
Tip 8: Strive to make eye contact with every individual in the room
Spread the love by trying to talk to every individual in your audience. With very large audiences, you should focus on the person in the middle of the section you want to engage. By focusing on that person, everyone in a reasonable radius will actually feel that you talking to them. Don’t believe me? Remember when you thought a teacher called on you in class only to discover she was calling on the person next to you?
Tip 9: Make eye contact, not ‘eyes contact’
When making eye contact, you should strive to look a person in a single pupil. Though I have not seen scientific proof, some speaking coaches recommend looking a person in the left pupil when making an emotional plea and looking them in the right pupil when making a logical argument. The rationale is that the right side of the brain controls emotions but processes images from the left eye, and vice versa.
Tip 10: Know when to break the eye contact rules
Like all good rules, the preceding nine were meant to be broken. We already learned that maintaining eye contact with your audience is actually destructive when inhabiting the characters within a story. Similarly, it is acceptable and desirable to close your eyes when reminiscing. You might choose to look up with calling upon a higher power.
Try it out!
Here is a great exercise to test out the three second eye contact rule from Tip #3. If you are in Toastmasters, ask your audience to raise their hands at the start of your Table Topic. Ask individuals to lower their hand only after you have maintained three full seconds of eye contact. If you disengage, the clock starts over. Have fun!