Like it or not, our eyes give us away. They give people a real insight to what we are thinking and feeling. ‘There aint no way to hide your lying eyes’ as The Eagles famously sang.
And because our eyes are such powerful ‘unconscious communicators’, eye-contact is a vital mechanism for making a connection and establishing trust with other people.
Successful presenters know this and use it to their advantage.
What should our eyes do when we’re presenting?
As we've said before, conversing with people and presenting to them are different skills. Different dynamics come into play and yet we still want and need to establish a connection and create trust. Our eyes are still important and eye contact still matters.
With a small group, eye contact is a little easier to maintain. This is often the case when you are presenting as part of a tendering process – just be careful that you don’t focus exclusively on the panel member who seems to be the most important.
Other members of the team may also influence the decision so you need to connect with them too. And you want to take in the visual signals (often in the eyes) that are coming back at you from everyone on the client’s team.
Presenting to a crowd
Presenting to a large audience brings additional challenges. You can’t establish the same connection with the entire room. And focusing just on one person would seem a bit weird. So what should you do?
One thing you should avoid is sweeping your eyes around the room trying to take in everyone. You’ll end up looking like you’re watching game of tennis and probably get a neck-ache for no reason. Certainly you won’t succeed in engaging anyone.
Pick out individual people in different parts of the room and talk to them. You can establish a connection at that level and the people around them will also feel involved.
The more you look at the audience, the more likely they will not just to try to look like they are paying attention – they actually will be paying attention.
You’ll have experienced this yourself. When you’re in the audience and believe the speaker is looking towards you, all of a sudden the material becomes more personal.
If you’ve been presenting and focused on one person for a second or two they may nod or smile in response. Often they don’t realize that they’re doing it, but it makes you feel better - believing that they are listening to you. That reassurance and confidence will flow through into your presentation.
Somehow when you engage the audience effectively through eye contact they know they must stay engaged. They might be the next one to be looked at and they don’t want to be found not paying attention (remember school?).
The result is that they do stay more engaged and will take in more of what you have to say.
Don’t stare into space
Never take the soft option and look at some object or space at the back or front of the auditorium where no people are sitting. Using eye-contact in a presentation isn’t always easy, natural or comfortable, so looking at nobody in particular can be tempting.
Above all, make sure that you share your eye contact evenly. Avoid favouring one side of the room over another, or one group of people over another. The ones you focus one will love it, but those you ignore or favour less will very quickly realize that you’re not talking to them (in effect giving them less respect) and will switch off.
Don’t stress about your notes
Finally, people realize that you may need to refer to your notes, especially where there are particular technical details that you want to check. But they appreciate it very much when they perceive that you are making a genuine effort to engage them and keeping the looking down at your notes to an absolute minimum.
After all, the sole purpose of you presenting to them in the first place is for them, so do your utmost to make them feel involved in the process.
Hugh Graham, The Bid Coach
Being aware of what your eyes are doing and using them to connect with your audience - just a few of the things I cover in presentation skills coaching.