Speaking With Your Eyes
Let Your Eyes Speak
Perhaps surprisingly, Margaret Thatcher and Richard Branson had something in common. If they spoke to you they looked you in the eye and made you feel like you were the only person in the room.
As speakers we want every member of our audience to feel that we are speaking to them as individuals.
So why should you do it and how do you go about it?
Speaking With Your Eyes – Why?
Have you ever been at a talk or presentation and you felt ignored? Did it seem like you and the rest of the audience may as well not have been there?
Perhaps the speaker was just reading from their notes or worse, reading from PowerPoint slides.
Or maybe they’d memorised their script and were reciting it while gazing into infinity, or studying the ceiling or the carpet.
Non-verbal communication, aka body language, has a significant part to play in the effectiveness of your speech or presentation.
And your eyes and the way you use them will have the greatest impact of all.
When you send an email, careful selection of words can give your communication a particular tone. Speak to someone on the phone and your voice can add colour to the message.
And then we move to a different level – being in the same room. You can see the person or people you’re speaking to. And they can see you.
The way you use your eyes can have enormous impact. The importance of eye contact in public speaking shouldn’t be underestimated.
Let’s take a look at how to achieve effective eye contact.
Speaking With Your Eyes – How
You want the audience members, however many there are, to feel that you are speaking to them.
But this isn’t the 1-2-1 conversation you might have with Sir Richard one day.
So just aim to look briefly at every person from time to time.
Not just look in their general direction but look at their eyes. But only briefly.
More than a second or two and they’ll start to feel uncomfortable.
Imagine you are sitting in the front row of the audience. And the speaker looks at you. And keeps looking at you for several seconds.
You are probably going to start to feel a bit awkward aren’t you? Likewise if they keep returning to look at you after briefly scanning the rest of the room.
Your aim should be to look at every audience member for a similar amount of time. However, don’t be a lighthouse!
Try to look at all areas of the audience equally, but on a random basis rather than appear to sweep around mechanically like the beam from a lighthouse.
As the audience gets bigger, eye contact becomes more difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, you should still strive to make everyone feel that you’re speaking to them directly.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of just looking at the front couple of rows. A conscious effort is required to look at all parts of the room equally.
Well used eye contact will make each member of the audience feel that you are speaking to them directly, but without them feeling self-conscious.
For some people, making direct eye contact can be very challenging.
“Pay attention when I’m speaking to you” or “Look at me when I’m speaking” can resonate from schooldays.
If you find it difficult to look directly at people’s eyes, try not to study the floor, ceiling or back wall of the room. Instead, look at their forehead or mouth. Unless you are very close to them they won’t realise that you aren’t making full eye contact.
There’s another benefit to maintaining eye contact with the audience.
By constantly looking at the audience you’ll be able to get a feel for how receptive they are to what you’re saying. As you look at someone they may smile or gently nod in agreement.
If you notice several people looking puzzled, it’s maybe time to recap or even say you’ve noticed a few puzzled looks and could you clarify anything for them.
And from their body language you’ll see if they are reacting positively. Or yawning!
If you keep making eye contact with each audience member in turn, they’ll find it difficult to let their concentration lapse in case you think they are not paying attention.
A cautionary word though. There will always be one or two people who give the impression they don’t like what they are hearing.
They’ll appear emotionless, or even frowning. Don’t worry, they are probably just concentrating very hard on what you are saying.
As we’ve discovered in recent times, when speaking in a video meeting, making eye contact by looking at the audience just doesn’t work. They’re not where they appear to be.
No, they’re lurking behind your computer where that little circular thing called a camera is located.
When speaking to camera, the trick is to look directly at it (as well as remembering to unmute before you start speaking!).
Maybe a brightly coloured sticker or smiley face fixed just above the camera will remind you to look at it rather than the screen.
Practise Speaking With Your Eyes
Speaking with your eyes takes practice – it isn’t as easy as it sounds. But it is well worth the effort as it is a key element in connecting with your audience.
By the way, if you are waiting to be served at the bar, keep looking at the person serving. They’ll find it hard to ignore you once they feel your steely gaze!
Lasted updated 15th June 2023
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