Speaking With Your Eyes

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Let Your Eyes Speak

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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.

Shall we take a look at speaking with your eyes; what to do and what not to do?

The Power of Eye Contact in Public Speaking

The way we use our eyes can have enormous impact. Of course, some people are rather better at it than others.

When future prime minister, Tony Blair, and his communications director, Alastair Campbell, first met Princess Diana, Campbell was moved to comment afterwards, “There was something about her eyes that went beyond radiance. They locked onto you and were utterly mesmeric.”

Some people have that ability to make you feel like you are the only person in the room when they speak to you, even if there are dozens of others present

However, for most of us our needs are more grounded. We just want the audience, whatever its size, to feel that we are speaking to them.

In fact, a little caution is required. 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.

So that’s the first rule of speaking with your eyes. 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 and they’ll start to feel uncomfortable.

Lighthouse Eyes

Try to look at all areas of the audience equally, but on a random basis rather than appear to sweep around 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.

Take Note

Less confident or less experienced speakers often study the floor, ceiling or back wall of the room rather than making eye contact with the audience.

If you don’t make eye contact you are unlikely to have an impact on the listeners. Eye contact is crucial in public speaking and requires practising.

Another issue is excessive reliance on notes.

If you are forever studying your notes, you won’t be looking at the audience and they’ll start to feel disconnected and their attention will likely begin to drift.

For guidance on notes, read this article.

Audience Feedback

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.

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 we’re saying.

Video Focus

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.

But if you still find making eye contact uncomfortable, focus on the forehead instead.

Apparently people in the audience can’t tell the difference if you look at their forehead instead of their eyes.

PS – 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!



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