Career Development All-in-One For Dummies
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Whether in a romantic novel or a spy thriller, much has been written about the mystique of a person’s eyes and the effect they can have on people, including those in your presentation’s audience. It’s been said that the face is a picture of what lies in the mind and heart with the eyes as the interpreter. You have, of course, heard that the eyes are the mirror of the soul and the expression “They were seeing eye to eye.” These sayings reinforce the major role that eye contact plays in human relations, including speeches and business presentations.

The majority of presentation trainers and coaches consider eye contact to be the most important of the nonverbal speaking skills. It is so important that without effective eye contact, you cannot reach your objectives. The numerous benefits of great eye contact include

  • Establishing and maintaining rapport with your audience
  • Setting a positive tone for your presentation
  • Subtly controlling your audience, while holding their attention
  • Reinforcing and emphasizing your key points and ideas
  • Getting immediate feedback on people’s reaction to your talk
  • Giving you an enhanced image of credibility, confidence, and charisma

Eye contact is a personal thing. It shows that you want to connect and that you care.

Do you trust someone who talks to you but doesn’t look you in the eye? Does that make you feel uncomfortable? Well, the same applies to people in your audience.

If you don’t engage them with eye contact, it not only takes away the personal touch and hurts rapport, but people in your audience will form a negative impression of you — that you are nervous, feel uncomfortable with your topic, are hiding something, or are afraid of the reaction to your talk. But if you make good eye contact, your audience members sense you are enjoying your presentation, like being with them, and are confident in your topic and speaking ability.

An audience mimics your behavior, so if you display enthusiasm about your topic, they will too.

What’s interesting is how you can psychologically keep the interest of people — influence their reactions — by looking directly at them. Next time you give a presentation note this: As you look at people, in almost 100 percent of the cases, they look back at you.

On the one hand, looking directly into someone’s eyes pressures them to look back at you. On the other hand, if you look at the walls in the room or stare at the projection screen, people may feel free to look at their smartphone or tablet or otherwise redirect their attention away from you. Even with large audiences, systematically making eye contact with different sections of the room will keep people looking back at you.

Flexibility and adaptability characterize innovative presenters. While maintaining eye contact with as many people as possible, you constantly analyze and gauge how the group is reacting to your talk. The audience’s body language, whether positive (sitting on the edge of their seats, nodding in agreement, and smiling) or negative (yawning, looking at watches, fidgeting, frowning), tells you whether they’re eagerly listening, anxious to hear more, positively receptive to the information, or bored, restless, frustrated, confused, or irritated.

Because you continuously look at people, you can judge whether you need to speed things up, move onto the next area in your presentation, slow down and give more explanations, examples, and details, engage people in discussions, or ask them questions to determine whether they’re bothered or are having difficulty understanding something.

Use your eyes for emphasis. When you come to your main points, maintain strong eye contact with your group. To add dramatic effect, you can walk to the center of the meeting room (or stage) to get closer to your audience right before you communicate your critical point, add more voice volume, and pause while you look around the room with direct eye contact. This combination of voice and body movement adds powerful emphasis when needed.

Speaking with your eyes

Tarjei Vesaas, a Norwegian novelist and poet, aptly quipped, “Almost nothing need be said when you have eyes.” Obviously, eyes alone, without talking and visuals, won’t cut it for your typical business presentation, but your eyes do communicate. Here are some tips for effective eye-speak:
  • When you begin your talk, let your eyes sweep through the audience.
  • Look directly into the eyes of others. Don’t look over their heads or anywhere else.
  • Maintain random eye contact around the room — don’t make it look contrived by mechanically swinging your head side-to-side and doing eye contact in a predictable, systematic way. As you speak, ask yourself, “Who haven’t I looked at yet?”
  • Look at each person for about three to six seconds as if talking to just that individual. If you look for less time, say a second, that’s glancing, and if you look longer, people feel uncomfortable — as if they’re being singled out.

Avoid the following eye-contact no-nos:

  • Staring at your notes, the projection screen, the floor, or anywhere else except your group.
  • Looking only at friendly, supportive people who are nodding, smiling, and otherwise giving you positive feedback; spread your eye contact around the room.
  • Overdoing eye contact with specific people such as the senior managers, prominent and influential people, or the top decision makers. However, when you come to important parts of your presentation, look at the key people to emphasize your point and gauge their reactions.
  • Shifting your eyes. Move your head and even your entire body to look around.

Keeping eye contact with a large audience

You might be asking, “How can we really do effective eye contact with an audience of 500 to 2,000 or even more?” The closer you are to someone — for example, to your immediate front or close left and right sides — the more that person can detect if you are looking directly at him. The farther away you are from someone, the less he can see if you are looking at him eye-to-eye.

When you select one individual in the first row to look at, only a few people think you’re looking at them. The trick is to focus on giving individual eye contact to more of the folks in front of you. But don’t forget to look at the extremes of the room — right and left, very back, and balcony if there is one.

Look at the very back of a large room and select one person to gaze at. People in a large radius (perhaps 20 to 40 feet in size) around that person feel that you’re looking at them.

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