The Eyes Have it: How to Maximize Your Eye Contact

Quick, how is your eye contact? Most people say, my eye contact is fine. But when we watch them present in front of an audience, we see anything but effective eye contact. They look at their slides, over the heads of their audience, or they scan the audience so fast that there is no real connection.

Eye contact is a learnable skill almost anyone can master with a little patience and persistence. It is one of the “soft skills” that pays big dividends without major investment or risk. 

Why is eye contact so important?

  1. It is your first and best way to connect with your listeners. To share a moment. To be present with them.

  2. It is a signal of confidence and honesty. You might avoid direct eye contact simply because you are uncomfortable, but it can come across as less than credible.

  3. You can get a better sense of the audience. With a little practice you’ll be able to gauge the energy of the audience more accurately. And your eye contact will energize them as well.

Now, what is good eye contact?

It is the ability to look at your audience, face to face, for a few seconds at a time. It is NOT sweeping past them at record speed. It is NOT drilling them through the forehead or staring so long you make them uncomfortable. It’s a friendly gaze, much like you would have during an informal conversation. It softens your face, makes you approachable.

It starts with you sending out your energy toward the listeners. Imagine that you are sending forth a beam of energy and directing it outward toward one person at a time. Don’t rush. Don’t expect anything back. Just send out this positive energy, to one listener at a time.

With practice, you begin to feel your listeners sending energy back to you. That is the connection you are looking for. We believe you have to start sending your energy outward first and then see what comes back to you.

How can I improve my eye contact?

Observe others. Who makes good eye contact? How long do they hold it? Where do they seem to be looking? How do you feel when they connect with you? Can you feel their energy? If you can see examples of effective eye contact, go ahead and try it yourself. If you don’t, then lead the way toward better eye contact in your organization.

Practice in small groups or meetings. If eye contact seems daunting, practice it with people you already know. Gently experiment with holding eye contact a little longer. Once that is comfortable, extend it just a little bit longer. See how you can command listeners simply with your eye contact (and friendly energy.)

Look at the eyebrow of the person you are looking at. If eye contact seems intimidating, don’t worry about looking into their eyes. As long as you are an arm’s length away from them, they won’t be able to tell if you are looking into their eyes or not. They will just see friendly eye contact.

Find the friendly faces but don’t get stuck there. Every audience has a few friendly people who will smile and nod encouragingly. It’s ok to focus on them for the first minute or two, but after that, move on to others, always directing your energy outward. Be sure to make eye contact with people in all parts of the room; front, sides, and back. In a small group setting, make a point to connect with each person, whether they look friendly or not.

Practice in the room. As you prepare and rehearse for your presentations (you do that, right?) go into the room where you will be presenting, and practice looking at each empty chair for 1, 2 or 3 seconds at a time. Keep practicing until you begin to feel a rhythmic cadence, not too fast or too slow. Over time you can increase the duration of your eye contact up to four or five seconds per person.

Get feedback. Ask for specific feedback from your colleagues. Tell them you are trying to extend your eye contact and send your energy outward. See what they report, and then take the steps above if needed to enhance your eye contact (and connection) with your audience. Also, a presentation coach can help you maximize your eye contact, along with other aspects of your speaking. It can be a great investment in your future.

So what is the bottom line?

Practice the skill of making better eye contact by sending your energy outward toward your listeners and by taking enough time to create an unhurried pace. We think you will be surprised at the difference eye contact can make.