One of our clients told us that his father taught him the value of looking people in the eye when talking with them. We’re with him. It conveys connection, presence, and sincerity. When speaking to a group, the quality of your eye contact can help elevate the quality of your personal impression.

But eye contact is hard to do well, which is probably why people struggle with it. It can feel uncomfortable, unnatural, and challenge your ability to be yourself. Here are some ways to make it into a strength for you:

  • Focus your gaze at the eye level of your listeners. Avoid looks to the back of the room, or the inclination to look at people’s foreheads. Believe us when we say that if you’re looking past your audience, they’ll notice.
  • Don’t talk to or stare at your slides, your notes or your computer. Instead, if you need to refer to your notes, pause for a moment, take a breath, and then return your eyes to your listeners. (On the subject of pauses, we’re in favor of them! We’ll talk about the in the next issue!)
  • Instead of scanning the audience from side to side, like you’re watching a tennis match, you’ll make a better impression by focusing on one person at a time, holding eye contact for a full thought, and moving on when you come to a natural pause. People will feel like you’re talking directly to them, and those sitting in your line of vision will also feel connected. (We call that the “bowling pin” effect. Send us an email if you need more explanation.)

Closed circuit to speakers with large audiences: eye contact is more important than ever, even if you’re up on a stage and your listeners are sitting in the dark. And if your face has been blown up onto a huge video screen, it’s more important than ever. Think of how TV anchors are taught to look right into the camera, and to imagine that they’re speaking to one person at a time. You can do that, too!

Practice rounds: While rehearsing your speech, position randomly seated flag bearers throughout your audience, each holding up a small flag. They will keep the flag raised above their shoulders until you make 3-5 seconds of sustained eye contact with them from your position at the front of the room. As you practice your talk, your goal is to bring down every flag in the room. (Hey, even Tiger Woods hits the driving range.)