You may be telling a great story, making an excellent point, using your voice and your body language to give your speech or presentation colour and dynamism, but eye contact is what makes me feel you are really talking to me. Your monologue then feels more like a conversation, in which I am not just a passive listener but an active participant.
As I’ve mentioned before on this blog (Look at your audience), not looking people in the eye while you’re talking to them gives a bad impression – of shiftiness, of insecurity, whatever, it’s none of it good. But the benefit of making eye contact goes much further than avoiding a negative effect; not only will you come across as confident and sincere, you will also energise the audience and draw them in.
In order to make eye contact with the individuals in front of you, you have to know exactly what you’re saying. If you’re finding the right words as you go along, it’s physiologically impossible to look someone in the eyes at the same time. So there you have another good reason to prepare thoroughly and rehearse! Practise until you don’t have to think about how to express yourself but can concentrate completely on connecting with the people who’ve come to listen.
Don’t be afraid to look at each and every member of your audience. By all means start with the ones who are keen and attentive, but having the courage to connect with those who appear bored, or even hostile, can bring great rewards. In many cases, the stimulus of receiving your attention will be enough to (re)engage these people with what you’re talking about. And if someone totally disagrees with your argument, making eye contact with him or her shows confidence and authority on your part – and also suggests you take them seriously, which will help to prevent any antagonism becoming personal.
Genuine eye contact (as opposed to simply scanning across people’s eyes) gets the audience involved in your speech or presentation. Stay with one person long enough to give him or her a brief message, then move on randomly to someone else.
Some public speakers seem to think eye contact is an option extra or that people can’t tell whether the speaker is actually looking at them or not. Let me assure you, people can absolutely tell! Eye contact makes the same difference in public speaking as it does in private speaking, reinforcing the message and giving the listeners a stake in what’s happening. Instead of just saying your piece into the space, communicate with the people in front of you.