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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:
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:
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.
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.
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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