A Great Strategy For Eye Contact While Presenting
I was recently speaking to a friend who has had to give various types of speeches throughout the past year, to various audience sizes, and he was stumped about how to maintain eye-contact with the audience in a meaningful, effective manner. He was especially curious about an old tip he learned (which involves choosing one or two people in the audience to focus on throughout the speech), but he was having trouble implementing it in a natural way. While focusing on only a few specific people in the audience does work well for some speakers, many others struggle to do it naturally (including myself).
Your goal for any presentation is to connect with the audience as a whole; choosing only one or two people to focus on can come across as overly contrived, if not disconnected from everyone else in the audience. And if you’re too focused on maintaining eye contact with only one or two people, those who you are focusing on may start to feel uncomfortable. So, here’s a strategy I train speakers to use who are preparing for every type of presentation, from TEDx Talk to teaching, that creates a connection with the full audience.
No matter what size audience is in front of you, mentally divide it into thirds vertically. The center section will be right in front of you and goes all the way to the back of the room, while the left and right sections will be to your left and right respectively, and going all the way to the back of the room. It doesn’t matter how big the audience is, or how the seats are arranged, or even where the aisle is. If you try to divide into quarters it’ll get too complicated, and if you divide it in half you risk looking like you’re watching a tennis match with all of the looking back-and-forth between the two sections. Stick to thirds.
When you deliver the opening lines of the speech, focus on someone in the center section sitting near the back of the room, and after your first few lines, start to bring your eyes forward until you’re focusing on someone sitting near the front of the center section. Focusing on the center-back section will give you the most range with the whole audience when you open. If you ever stumble over your words, forget your lines, or get too nervous, return your focus to the center back of the audience to regain your composure and move forward.
As you get into the speech, find someone in each section to focus on for two-to-three sentences. Make sure to vary who you’re looking at as you shift to different parts of the audience. For instance, after you deliver the opening lines focusing on the center-back, then shift focus to the front-left, then over to the center-right section. It’s okay to hold focus on one section for a minute or two before moving on to another. And where you are on the stage doesn’t impact how you use this strategy; in fact, if you’re in a position where you can’t move around much at all, this is a great way to still add energy and movement to your speech.
Still stumped and letting nerves interfere with your ability to hold any kind of meaningful eye contact? Relax, take a deep breath, and focus on one person in the middle section until you feel comfortable enough to move your gaze around again.
Like with all presentation skills, mastering audience connection take dedicated practice. But the more tricks you have up your sleeve, the easier it is to find a strategy that works for you.