Four great reasons for eyeballing your audience in presentations – and how to do it without being scary

The one thing bad presenters do that is guaranteed to make me lose the will to live while coaching them is turn their backs on the audience.

For one thing it usually means that their slides are so densely packed with information that they can’t afford to look away from them for a second – which is bad enough.

For another it means that they haven’t a hope of engaging their audience’s attention, let alone holding it for the next 20 minutes-or-so, and would have been better advised to send out the presentation by email, cancel the meeting and avoid a gigantic waste of everybody’s time.

Of all the non-verbal elements that can support or undermine the content of a presentation – including vocal pace and inflection, stance, movement and gesture – eye contact has the most power to make or break. And here are the reasons why:

  1. Eye contact makes you credible

A recent scientific study showed that people were more likely to believe statements by a speaker looking at them directly than by someone averting their gaze. Additionally when participants disagreed with a statement they were slower to do so when the statement was uttered with a direct (versus averted) gaze. Conversely people who avoid eye contact are rated as less sincere. It follows that if you want to persuade people to a particular way of thinking or acting – and why else would you be giving a presentation? – you need to look them in the eye.

  1. Eye contact makes your message more memorable

Another recent study found that a direct gaze makes people feel that the information being presented is relevant to them, which ‘acts as an associative “glue” for perception, memory and decision-making’.  In other words they are more likely to listen to your words at the time, remember them afterwards and act on them later.

  1. Eye contact commands attention

When you look at individual members of your audience, you practically oblige them to pay attention to you. Conversely, when you turn your back on your audience you give them permission to do the same, metaphorically, to you. Listening is hard work, our minds are prone to wandering and we need all the help we can get to stay tuned in.

  1. Eye contact puts you in control

Eye contact in a presentation works both ways. As well as obliging the audience to attend to you, it forces you to notice what they are doing – and adjust your performance accordingly. If you see people looking bored or even dozing you know you need to inject new energy into the presentation; if you see a whole load of blinking ‘phone lights you need to change tack – tell a story, show a video, ask a question – to re-engage attention. If they are all looking intently at you, nodding agreement and laughing at all of your jokes, you know you are doing fine.

The downside of eye contact

The potential downside of eye contact is that too much of it can make people feel uncomfortable; indeed maintaining eye contact with too much intensity is seen as a feature of psychopaths!

So how should presenters look at their audiences – and for how long?

Here again science comes to the rescue. A team of British researchers, who conducted the most comprehensive study of what people generally regard as a comfortable length of eye contact, concluded that the ideal duration is just over three seconds.

Make everyone feel included

The crucial thing for presenters to remember is that eye contact needs to be shared around the room, so that everyone feels included. Sometimes it is tempting to direct your gaze only at the nice friendly-looking people, who are nodding and smiling at you. But it is just as important – probably more important – to eyeball the ones who are looking bored, impatient, even hostile.

So ideally you need to look at as many people as you can for about three seconds at a time. And to avoid looking like an automaton you need to move your gaze randomly around the room, rather than in a fixed circuit from one side to the other.

Of course if you are speaking in a really large auditorium, you’ll only be able to clearly see the people in the first few rows. But don’t make the mistake of addressing yourself just to them. If you mentally divide up the auditorium into four or six sections and shift your gaze randomly from one section to another, you will appear to be looking at individuals and they should respond accordingly.

How Clearsay can help

Clearsay Communications works with professionals from all sectors to improve their spoken communication skills for use in presentations, media interviews and meetings of all kinds. To find out what we could do for you, return to the Home Page.

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