How important is eye contact? I know a lot of speakers wish eye contact wasn’t important. But, if you think about having a casual conversation with anyone, you have an expectation that the person will look at you. What happens when she doesn’t?
You start to think odd thoughts. You wonder if that person is hiding something. You wonder if they are outright lying to you. You wonder if they are bored with you. You wonder if they have some sort of social issue. Something must be wrong.
You’ll notice that whatever you are wondering becomes far more important than anything being said. You probably didn’t even hear what was said because you were lost in thought.
Well, this happens to audiences as well. On some level, they will wonder why you aren’t looking up at them, making that crucial connection with the audience. They will continue to dwell on this issue or else they will simply shrug and pay attention to something else or someone else. At this point, your message, however important, is lost.
Poor Excuses for Eye Contact
You understand that eye contact is important, but you do these weird things that stand in for eye contact without actually being eye contact. Let me see if I can list them:
- Looking at the wall behind the audience
- Looking up once or twice the entire speech
- Looking up every two seconds at no one in particular
- Looking at only one person the entire speech (creepy!)
- Looking up while keeping your eyes on the paper
I’m sure there are other little tricks, but these are the most obvious. It looks like you are making an attempt at eye contact without having to make eye contact. It’s almost like you are saying to the audience, “I hope you appreciate effort instead of eye contact. It’s the best I can do.”
Sorry, but pseudo-eye contact is just not the same as real eye contact.
How to Look at the Audience
Looking at the audience is an art unto itself. It helps to look at them from the perspective of someone who is trying to help a friend in need. That will help when it comes time to face them. But, that’s not really the same as connecting your gaze with theirs. How do you do that?
Sweep across the room connecting with individuals. Don’t go row by row, person by person, making eye contact. Mix it up. Look at someone to the left, then move across and someone to the right, then someone in the back. Give everyone a random opportunity to meet your gaze. Individuals who are singled out will become uncomfortable if you keep looking only at them or more than anyone else. Others will also begin to feel as if you aren’t addressing them if you don’t provide eye contact.
Inevitably, you will probably move toward the friendlier faces, and when you move back and forth across the audience, you might find yourself drawn to their face. This is acceptable; just try to remember that everyone deserves a chance to make that connection with you. Not everyone will want it, but everyone needs that opportunity.
Of course, you will look away, either at your notes or somewhere beyond the audience. Again, this is natural. There’s no need to lock your gaze upon the audience unceasingly.
It’s Just a Conversation… With Lots More People
Ultimately, keep in mind that you are talking to someone, or rather a group of some ones, all of whom have expectations similar to a personal one-on-one conversation. The standard rules apply: look at them, but not too long. Look around a bit, but always come back to them. Smile a little. Care about them. Give them your best.
Okay, maybe that’s not eye contact, but it’s still contact, and without it, eye contact becomes a bit cold. Be sure to be warm.