Look me in the eyes (or somewhere nearby) and tell me the truth.
Confident speakers connect with their audiences through sustained eye contact. Audiences see this direct, protracted eye contact as conveying higher status and comfort. Scientific evidence suggests that eye contact invokes an “approach motivation” that invites those connected via their eye contact to want to be with each other more. In the West, we have sayings like “look me in the eyes and tell me the truth” or “eyes are the windows to your soul.” Also, you know that the lack of good eye contact or, worse yet, rapidly darting glances makes you appear nervous, deceptive or both.
Further, not looking at your audience causes them to feel ostracized, which invites feelings of resentment toward you. Of course, looking out at your audience members can be quite challenging…if for no other reason than you see them looking back at you. Because evolution has wired us to read a tremendous amount of social information from people’s faces (e.g., Are you under threat? Are you making sense? Do people like you?), looking out at your audience can easily distract you and increase your cognitive load. This increased load is why even expert speakers often look up and away when gathering their next thoughts. So, you need to learn to fake good eye contact.
How do you fake eye contact? Recent research from Edith Cowan University suggests how to accomplish this. Re.searchers there found that simply looking at places on someone’s face (e.g., mouth, nose, etc) is enough for the person being looked at to feel as if eye contact was made. So my advice: When 18 inches are farther away from your audience, try looking at that spot between people’s eyebrows…you know the place, where if you don’t shave or pluck you would end up with a “unibrow.” Ultimately, you need develop a degree of comfort looking directly at your audience members’ eyes, but this “fake it” technique can help in the meantime.
Once comfortable looking at your audience, you need to spread your eye contact around so that you connect with all of them. However, you need not look at each member, especially if you are in front of a large audience. You are better served to create quadrants and look in those various directions. Also, try to avoid repetitive patterns when scanning the room.
By practicing these eye contact skills, you will improve your communication by appearing more confident and receiving useful information from your audience’s reactions.