If an audience is large, you obviously cannot maintain eye contact with every member. However, you can give the impression of engaging in individual eye contact with these mechanisms:
- Pick several locations in which you will routinely focus on an audience member. Direct front, left rear, right front, right rear center, etc. The point is that you don’t want to forget about a section of the audience, something that’s easy to do in the heat of battle. Practice your sectors in advance until it becomes routine, but not too You don’t want your movements to become perceptibly predictable (a pattern presentation coach Olivia Mitchell characterizes as acting like a “tennis umpire” or a “lighthouse)[i]. In sum, don’t overcomplicate this: Just make sure you regularly maintain eye contact with people in different sections of the audience.
- Pick out one person in the sector with whom to make eye contact during your talk. Hold eye contact until it is reciprocated. You might even get a nod. Then move on. Be sure not to break eye contact in mid-sentence. You’d be surprised how effectively this works: A few years ago I and a group of friends attended the Broadway play “Barrymore,” starring Christopher Plummer. The play is a monologue with much of the dialogue addressed to the audience. I noted afterward how Plummer had, I believed, held eye contact with me for several seconds. My friends, who sat in different sections of the audience, said the same thing. Everybody thought Plummer was, at one point, looking right at them.
- Having said the above, remember that in smaller groups some people may be uncomfortable with eye contact. You can perceive if that’s the case. Just focus on another audience member.
- Also remember that the point behind eye contact is to establish a relationship between the presenter and the audience. We are obviously talking about a generalized relationship here, and the audience’s view of that relationship is more of an overall impression than a tally of how many times you looked at individuals. You can maintain an overall atmosphere of contact by looking at the audience instead of your slides, and looking up from your notes as much as possible.
- In relation to the latter suggestion about notes, be sure to finish a sentence while you are looking up. Only then should you glance downward to your notes.
You can find out more in my upcoming book, Present Like a Pro, to be published in January.
[i] Olivia Mitchell, “Eight Presentation Tips to Make Your Eye Contact More Powerful, accessed July 12, 2016, http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/delivery/tips-eye-contact/