Presentations: Why Eye Contact Is Critical

Whether you’re chatting to one person or presenting to many, your authenticity will be established quickly – and instinctively. How? They’ll be watching you. Without consciously realising it, listeners will measure your levels of believability by the quality and intensity of your gaze – in other words how well you make eye contact. They do this very quickly indeed, in a matter of seconds. It’s a skill we start developing within days of birth. As the eyes begin to focus we learn to assess visually long before we understand the meaning of words.

woman-brown-eyes-595x240It’s very easy to mess up on eye contact, but it’s very important not to. For presenters, a high level of eye contact is not negotiable. But we often allow it to be undermined by distractions.

Presenters love visuals just about as much as audiences hate them. The more visuals, the more the presenter may look at the screen (bad!) or the monitor (not quite so bad!) thereby losing audience eye contact. This sin can be forgiven if the slides are well thought out and easy on the eye. That’s because if the visuals are compelling, people’s eyes will be fixed there, not on the presenter. During those moments eye contact is unnecessary. In order to be directing the show, our presenter should then verbally direct them “if you look here, you will see…” – thereby directing all eyes to the screen

Ideally, once a visual has served its purpose it should be removed or replaced so that audiences are not left staring at the last slide while the presenter’s talk has moved on to something different. In the absence of a new slide, a blank or black slide will do nicely. That will bring the focus back to the presenter who by then should be making full eye contact.

Version 2If the presenter uses just a few, or no slides it follows that there is less distraction and a higher percentage of eye contact. The potential traps are that the presenter may

  • Spend too much time reading notes
  • Look at the ceiling, floor, people’s feet (or knees), a table or the back of the room
  • Look upwards into the ether while searching for a word, phrase or thought

Notes should be brief, preferably on cue cards using trigger points. To be sure that you can remember what the trigger should be triggering, rehearse in advance.

Staring at objects is an unprofessional, bad habit. Get yourself into a good mood before the presentation – then connect with the people present from the start. For this your eyes play a key role.

If you’ve rehearsed your presentation 2 or 3 times in advance there should be no need to search for words. You’ll have planned them in advance, and your brain should replay what you practiced.

If it’s a large audience you’re permitted to break your eye contact into sections – left and right, or left, middle and right. For a dozen or less people, try and make eye contact with each one at some stage, more than once. This increases the connection you want and helps to achieve a favourable presentation outcome. They’re also likely to like you more.

The advantages of eye contact go beyond connection – it extends to gaining information. Use your eyes to gauge responses. You’ll soon know whether the audience is on your journey with you or tuned out and buried in electronic distraction. You’ll only know that if your gaze is on more than one person. This also means there’s less chance that they’ll stray. No one wants to be caught napping or unable to answer a question because they weren’t listening, so people are more likely to engage with you if you’re making eye contact.

By using eye contact to remain tuned in to your audience, you enhance the power of your presentation and its outcome. It may come as a revelation to many that our eyes have far more power than we ever imagined. It’s easy to train yourself to consciously use your visual power to your advantage.

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