Recently, when conducting training for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Leadership Development Program (LDP), we helped prepare participants for their “final” – a 45-minute briefing to the Brigadier General and his senior leadership team.
Upon being introduced to the 23 participants, I was impressed right from the start. Each and every one greeted me with a strong handshake while looking me straight in the eye. Holding my gaze for just those few moments communicated confidence, credibility and connection.
I know these are big words for such a simple gesture, and yet direct eye contact conveys that, and more. It says, “I am important – and so are you.”
This resonated with me for two reasons. First, coming from a military family, the participants demeanor made me feel immediately welcome. Second, it is this sense of engagement that every presenter wants to build among his or her audience.
As a presenter, using your eyes to engage your audience is critical to creating a sense of confidence, establishing credibility, and building rapport.
Make your next presentation an eye-opening experience
So, how can you use eye contact to elevate the effectiveness of your next presentation?
As a start, I often suggest that speakers arrive at least 30 minutes before audience members start to assemble. This allows you to greet your listeners as they gather, following the same protocol the LDP participants extended to me. This initial greeting with direct eye contact helps build rapport, which turns into support during your presentation.
Once you’re introduced – but before you say a word – stop, look out at your audience directly, and smile. This “pause and welcome” moment (as I call it) allows your audience to get settled, helps make a strong connection, and establishes your authority.
This may feel awkward at first, but compare it to how you greet a house guest when they enter your home. It’s not that different – you’re fostering a sense of hospitality that allows people to connect with you.
Managing meaningful eye contact
During your presentation, shoot for a minimum of 90% direct, continuous and roving eye contact.
“Direct” is looking at your listeners, not over their heads or at the back wall.
By “continuous and roving,” I mean scan the room – looking at people seated right and left, front and center, and in the back. That may mean turning your head, panning you body, walking around the stage, or even out into your audience.
You may find it helpful to pick out several friendly faces scattered around the room – those attendees you welcomed upon arrival – and direct your eye contact at them.
When your presentation is completed, you might be tempted to retreat quickly. Please don’t – you’ll be doing yourself and your listeners a disservice. End your remarks by looking out, scanning the audience, and smiling.
Like putting a period at the end of a sentence, this gesture signals completion and allows your listeners to thank you with a round of applause. It also gives you a chance to take a breath, connect with your audience one last time – and bask in their applause for a job well done.
Remember, if you want “all eyes on you,” you need to be “all eyes.” By following these best practices for strong eye contact, you’ll be much better able to communicate that valuable sense of confidence, credibility, and connection to your own audience.