Of all the techniques that a speaker can use, being able to use your eyes effectively may possibly be the most powerful. Even though we spend years using our eyes in conversations, we are never really trained to do it.
All humans use eye contact as a signal of engagement. If we aren’t interested in a person, or we aren’t comfortable around them, it is very hard to maintain genuine eye contact.
As a speaker, eye contact is perhaps the easiest way for you to connect to your audience without saying a word. If your audience is engaged with you, they will reward you with good eye contact as well.
Despite this, it’s not a natural habit to look around a room and have comfortable, commanding eye contact. It takes practice and time to get better at.
On the path to better eye contact, here are three mistakes that many speakers make (and I’ve made) when speaking to an audience.
The ‘stare down’
This is when you look too long at any one person in your audience. Some speakers will choose one person in the audience and look at them far too much, or too long. They may do this because they believe the person is interested, or they feel comfortable looking at them.
Looking at one person too long creates a ‘stare down’ effect. As a rule, more than 7-10 seconds of constant eye contact starts to become domineering, especially when a speaker is looking at one person in the audience for too long.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from staring, you’ll notice some speakers who won’t look at one single person. Instead they scan back and forth across the audience constantly. This makes everyone in the room feel uncomfortable as they can’t get a clear read on the person speaking.
The ‘up and down’
Another type of eye contact avoidance comes from looking up or over the audience, or down at the ground too much. It can be useful to use an up or down glance to symbolize a feeling or change of thought. However, doing it as an avoidance strategy will break the connection the audience has to you.
How to have confident, engaging eye contact with your audience
You might now be wondering about the right ways to use your eyes when speaking to a group. Generally speaking, the smaller the group, the more you should try to look at everyone around the room. Give balanced time and focus to everyone, so they all feel connected to you.
For more impact, you can look at one person for about one complete sentence at a time. You will find your speeches have more punch if you finish a thought while looking at one person. Once the thought is done, you can then move to the next person.
When it comes to bigger rooms, you can focus on parts of the audience. It is still important to look out into the group and speak to a section of the room the same as your would to one person. If you are elevated on a stage or podium, this can be tricky but it gets easier with practice.
If the audience is dark, and you have lights on you, it may be almost impossible to see people’s eyes. Even so, you should imagine that you are speaking to one person and keep your eye contact consistent with this conversational approach.
Keep your eye contact ‘soft’
Another idea I learned from the excellent book The Charisma Myth is to be careful not to have a strained/focussed look in your eyes when speaking. This is a habit that some people have, and it is almost always unconscious.
Generally speaking, the more you focus your eyes, the more strained and aggressive you look. Even if you smile, your eyes will make you look intense.
It is far better to practice having ‘soft’ eyes. This means relaxing the muscles around your eyes as this creates a more open and relaxed look. This practice of soft eyes will also relax you as a speaker, so it has the double benefit.
Practice your eye contact one-to-one
To get better at speaking with confident eyes, try working on stronger eye contact in your one-to-one everyday conversations. Try to consciously look at people when speaking to them, and also when listening. Make this a habit and you will find it easier as you incorporate it into your speaking on stage.