Making eye contact while speaking to a group may be one of the most difficult aspects of giving a presentation. To many people, eye contact is an intimate act - almost like touching someone. And to reach out and touch a stranger - even with your eyes - can feel particularly uncomfortable.
However, the audience is there to see you and to hear what you have to say. They deserve to be included and to be made welcome. Lack of eye contact creates a barrier between you and the audience; it makes you look untrustworthy, shifty or unsure of yourself; it drags down your presentation and sucks the life out of it.
How can we resolve this issue and give our audience the eye contact and personal attention they deserve?
1. To scan or not to scan - that is the question.
You may have been taught to scan the back wall during a presentation; you may have been told that this fools the audience into believing you're looking at them. False! This only makes the audience believe (and wonder why) you're looking at the back wall. Making eye contact with individuals in the room is imperative if you want to build a relationship with your audience.
2. Make friends
Here's a way to create an environment for yourself that allows eye contact to occur naturally. It's called "making a friend."
As you're setting up and preparing for your presentation, some people will begin to arrive. This is a golden opportunity and a low-pressure way to greet some people before you begin your talk.
Say hello as a participant walks into the room. Introduce yourself as the speaker. You can leave it at that, or you can even ask a simple open-ended question, like "how did you hear about the workshop?" You're just making small talk, but you've now made a connection with an audience member that will serve you later.
When you begin your presentation, seek out your "friends" for eye contact. You will feel more comfortable looking at them because you've already met them. It's especially helpful to make your opening remarks while looking at one or two people you feel comfortable with. This sets the stage for the rest of your talk.
3. Divide the room into sections.
Once you feel comfortable with a few individuals, you can start spreading 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 neglect 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.
4. Seek out the people who are giving a positive response.
Nobody wants to suffer an insecure moment in the middle of a seminar by catching the eye of an audience member sitting with arms crossed and a defiant expression. Yes, you'll notice these people, but don't assume they're indifferent. Each person has a unique way of interacting with a speaker, and some people will enjoy your presentation while appearing to indicate otherwise.
If you're too uncomfortable making eye contact with people who don't seem to be giving anything back, look for those who are responding. Make eye contact with the one who's smiling, the one who's nodding, the one who's obviously "getting it." This builds confidence and gives you back the energy you need to continue.
Remember, a presentation is not a one-way communication; it's a dialogue with your audience. They may not be responding in words, but they are communicating with their eyes, their body language and their facial expressions. The more you interact with the audience, the more you look into their faces and receive feedback from them, the more you are engaged in a conversation rather than a lecture.
Eye contact is key to building a relationship that is likely to continue even after your presentation is over.