What if you could refine a speaking technique that would have your audience believe you were more intelligent, more likeable and more deserving of a higher salary?
What if not improving that same technique would lead that audience to think you were insecure, boring and cowardly?
And what if I told you that those perceptions were not in the eye of the beholder but in your own eyeballs and how you use them when you speak?
That’s right, we’re talking about eye contact. It’s the most important technique in your speaking toolkit because when you do it well, it has a huge impact on your audience’s perception of you.
And yet, most speakers don’t make effective eye contact because they are too busy looking at their notes in front of them or the screen behind them. Presenters have so much fear of forgetting what they plan to say that they over-script their remarks and over-rely on their notes. And when you do so a bunch of bad stuff happens:
Your vocal range (and your confidence) compresses. Very few people can read from their notes in a way that sounds natural, authentic and engaging. Are you Katie Couric and therefore a master of interviewing and speaking from your note? If you're not, you’re likely hunched over your notes, compressing your vocal range and volume and projecting the confidence of a sheepish seventh grader at your first prom.
You undermine your credibility. When you need to read something basic and foundational, something that your audience expects you to know cold, you lose credibility. If you’re an expert in structured finance, you shouldn’t have to read the definition of a securitization. Watch how often you see people read from their notes notes from the moment you step on the podium—it often looks like they don’t even know what their name is!
Your eyes disengage. If you’ve got your nose in your notes, the only thing your audience is seeing is the top of your head. And when the audience can’t see your eyes, they aren’t thinking and feeling good things about you and your content.
A ton of great academic research has been conducted to better understand the importance and impact of eye contact in communication. One interesting study, conducted by Carolyn P. Atkins, a researcher at West Virginia University, explored the audience’s perceptions of speakers who make eye contact for different amounts of the time when speaking.
The findings were instructive:
- A speaker perceived to have “no” eye contact looked at his audience less than 10% of the time;
A speaker who looked at her audience 10 – 50% of the time was judged to have “minimal” eye contact;
A speaker with “good” eye contact looked at her audience 90 – 100% of the time.
You don’t even get to “good” until you’re making eye contact with your audience at least 90% of the time. Ninety percent! Michael Jordan said, “I didn’t come here to be average.” and I bet that's true of you too. You don't get out of bed in the morning striving to be "minimal". You want to be good, even great! This research study suggests that with anything less than "good" eye contact, audiences will perceive you to be:
On the flip side, once you do hit the 90% mark, your audience will perceive you to be:
More deserving of a higher salary.
And they will have more active brains, better recall and do more with what you share when you make “good” eye contact. Nice.
So, if you’re not hitting the 90% mark—and most of us aren’t—you have some work to do. And it’s work worth doing. You want to ensure your audience is receiving you and your content in the best possible light.
Here are seven ways you can improve your eye contact the next time you present…
- Get your head out of your notes. This is easy to say, hard to do. If you need to script what you want to say to help you think through your remarks, fine. But don’t stop your prep there. Distill your script into high-level bullets and use them to prompt you to speak. Separate your reading from your speaking. Speak with eye contact and then pause to look at your notes. I call this "pausing to reload".
We have a tendency to fall in love with our own prose—it’s called the Eloquence Trap—and when we have our speech written out in front of us, we stay stuck in our notes and that kills our eye contact and credibility. Instead, focus on getting the essence of the message across rather than obsessing over eloquence. Essence with good eye contact beats eloquence every time.
- Don’t be a grazer. People can feel it if you’re not making authentic eye contact, when you’re grazing around the room and your eyes aren’t landing anywhere. It feels like you’re not really in the room but caught up in your own internal teleprompter. So, when you thank the person who introduced you, make eye contact with her and then turn to someone in the middle of the room. From there, start making meaningful, sustained connections to random people throughout the room.
- Lengthen the duration of eye contact per person. Connect with a human in the audience for 3-5 seconds before you move on. Time gets compressed when you’re under pressure—5 seconds will feel like 30.
- Wait for a natural pause before you shift your eye contact. When you have a natural pause in your content, disengage your eyes and move onto the next person. Be sure to randomly select the people you make eye contact with so you don’t look like a robot—or one of those crazy lawn sprinklers that jerk from side to side. People will understand their turn to connect with you will come.
If the stage lights are bright and the room is dark, look for audience members with glasses. Their lenses catch the light and can give you focal targets. You can also divide the room into 6-8 sections and move around the room landing for 3-5 seconds on each section as you talk.
When you slow it down and become more deliberate with your eye contact, your presence strengthens and the audience senses that you are calm, comfortable and confident.
- Align your eye contact with your most interested listener. When you get to the content that you know particular people in the audience care about, look at them when you talk about it. Look at the business line leader, for instance, when speaking about the acquisition’s efficiencies and the head of corporate development when speaking about reps and warranties. This helps your content land in a powerful way and makes them feel like you’ve designed the presentation just for them.
- Square up your shoulders and your face. If you want to increase the consistency of your basketball shots, you turn your shoulders to be square with the hoop. (Trust me, it works. I’m 5’8” and take all the help I can get!) The same is true with eye contact. Square up your shoulders and your face with the person you’re looking at and you’ll appear to be comfortable, not stiff, as you enhance your presence. You don’t have to move your feet every time you make eye contact, but sometimes you’ll want to. The same notion applies when you are sitting—most boardroom chairs swivel—so move when necessary to make meaningful eye contact.
- Practice every day. Practice making sustained eye contact in casual conversations in your personal and professional contexts. Build the habit in low stress environments so you can do it comfortably when pressure is on. Serena Williams learned to smash the ball when she was six. She still practices it to this day.
Your eyes may well be the windows to your soul, but they’re also the windows through which your audience experiences your confidence and credibility. Don’t miss the opportunity connect with them.