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‹ View all articles 23rd June 2016

Embarrassing eye contact and how to change it

Delivering a Talk

From the ceiling, to the floor, to the back, to one or two people, to your shoes, to your notes... where exactly are you supposed to look when you speak to an audience? And can you even control it?

Oh my yes, you can control where you look. When you make eye contact with your audience, they feel like a conversation is taking place. In a conversation people expect to participate (even non-verbally), as a result will listen more effectively.

The first step is to become aware of where you look when you speak. Here are some of the most common eye contact scenarios to consider:

Constant eye rolling or shoe obsessing:

Think of a speaker who stares up or down and never looks at their audience. How does that represent the speakers abilities? Most times it gives the appearance of no confidence in themselves or their material, or they're unprepared or uninterested in the subject. When a speaker is looking up it gives the impression that they're trying to remember or just plain making it up. Whether or not that's true is irrelevant, if that's what the audience thinks you're doing.

When you're nervous, it's tempting to search above you for a clue about what to say next. It's a common trick our mind plays when we traverse out of our comfort zone. In the early days of my public speaking I thought that if I looked right in the eyes of the audience they'd just KNOW how nervous I was and was somehow faking everything I knew about my topic.

Eye contact was dangerous, an acknowledgement that I was actually on stage and everyone could see me. Worse yet - I'd make eye contact with a disapproving negative audience member and their dirty look would destroy me. I would get zapped right there on stage in front of everyone. It could happen.

After many years of speaking I can unequivocally state that the audience can't zap you with their eyes. Promise. Here's what to do instead:

  • obviously stop looking at the ceiling. Focus instead on the zone of the upper bodies of the audience. If you find it overwhelming continue to look at the audience but don't focus your eyes.
  • Look in-between someone's eyes. It makes the person think you're looking them right in the eye. Of course genuine connection is always best. Otherwise you won't get the non-verbal responses you need from your audience.

Staring much?

It's easy to find an audience member or two that look friendly, either someone you know or someone who's smiling at you, and talk to them only.

Clinging onto one or two people and only looking at them like 'lifelines' can make the rest of the audience feel like they don't matter.

Ever been in a three way conversation and one of the people never looked at you, even once? Not a very good feeling and you'd probably want to walk away quickly. The audience can't really do that physically, but they can let their minds 'walk away' and wander from what you're saying because it feels like you're not really talking to them.

  • Make sure you make eye contact with everyone, back to front and side to side. This can be tricky if some people are behind you, but don't leave them out. If you're talking to small audience, give every person two to three seconds of eye contact at a time. Just long enough to make them all feel acknowledged but not even to be awkward.
  • Larger groups can allow to you focus on clusters of people. Look for groups in your audience that match body language or mirror one another. Treat the group as you would a person, again spending two to three seconds on each group.

Notes are not always your friend:

One of the biggest mistakes we can make as public speakers is looking too much at your notes instead of your audience. This usually happens when you're lacking confidence in your material or when it's very complicated information. (Read more here about how to effectively present data)

Constant looking at your notes is more frequent when using a lectern for a speech. Lecterns, besides the fact that they're a barrier between you and your audience, are often a great place to store a limitless supply of notes.

The more note cards you have, the more you shuffle them, the easier it is to get confused, the more you'll read word for word. Worming your way through your notes constantly prevents you from making more than the occasional glance. Your audience will become very familiar with the top of your head, and feel as if you're talking AT them... not TO them.

  • Condense your speech notes into one page. Instead of writing out the entire speech word for word, list the highlights that will trigger your memory. This allows you to occasionally glance down at your notes and look at the audience for the majority of your speaking.
  • Leave the lectern behind. How can you be energizing, engaging, dynamic or funny when you're hiding behind a wooden stand? You CAN move away from the lectern and walk back if you need to glance at your notes. There's no rule against it. Take your white knuckles OFF the lectern and remember that if you've prepared, you probably don't need those notes that much anyway.

Eye contact with your audience actually feels amazing. It's your way to really see whether or not your audience is understanding what you're saying. And the more you connect with your audience, the more confident you'll feel about what you're saying.

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