Hari Patience-Davies shares three presentation hacks for easier eye contact.

Whether you’re talking in a meeting room or presenting on a stage, there’s one piece of advice that is given over and over again – make eye contact with your audience.

But sometimes that’s easier said that done. If a speaker is feeling nervous or experiencing public speaking anxiety the idea of looking the audience in the eye is pretty intimidating.

But there are some ways to hack it. Here are two techniques to fool the audience into thinking their getting eye contact when they’re not…

Eyebrows and glasses

So long as the person you are talking to is more than 6 feet (2 metres) away you don’t have to make eye contact with their actual eyes. Instead try focussing your attention on their eyebrows, or if they wear glasses, on the frames of the glasses.

To the audience member, it will feel like legitimate eye contact, but for the speaker, it’s not.

This only works if the person or people you are talking to are more than six feet from you – any closer and they may realise that you’re not quite meeting their gaze.

Focus on the people at the back

If you’re presenting in a room laid out theatre or dinner style (lots of tables) you get a lot more bang for your buck if you aim your gaze at the tables furthest from you.

This is similar to focussing on people’s glasses rather than their eyes, but when a table or group of people is more than 10 feet or 3 metres away you can focus instead on the table or generally on the group rather than meeting any individual’s eyes. As with the the glasses hack, the people in the audience will feel they are being looked at, while the speaker is able to instead talk to a table decoration or other inanimate object.

Both of these are about avoidance of eye contact, without loss of engagement. But there are some circumstances in which you simply can’t fake it. In which case:

Have friendly targets

Can you pre-populate the audience with a couple of ringers. Are there friendly colleagues you can ask to position themselves around the room to be the target for your eye contact? Or if don’t know any of your audience, can you identify the most important decision makers – after all it’s a lot easier to just make eye contact with 2 or 3 people than it is to try and connect with 15 or 20.

Try to avoid playing tennis with eye contact and moving from left, to right, to left. Instead, select the people you’ll look at and move your gaze between them randomly. Don’t shift every 20 or 30 seconds – move your eyes from one person to the next at the end of your sentence or the point you want to make.

Most of the time we will have allies in our audiences – so even if you can’t plant a few ringers, look for your allies. A friendly face is much easier to focus on.

If all else fails DO NOT imagine the audience naked. I have no idea why that piece of advice has become so popular – I can’t imagine anything worse than picturing people’s naked bodies when I’m trying to deliver a speech. Don’t do it.

Instead look for something familiar. Is there any audience member wearing a suit like your husband or with hair the same colour as your girlfriend or sister? Can you imagine that person as a friendly face and present to them, rather than the actual person who is in front of you?

It can take some work, but if you imagine you’re speaking to a friendly audience, you may find you relax more – which should also make you a better presenter, as a bonus.


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