One of the easiest ways to connect with an audience is to make eye contact with them.
It’s extremely tempting when giving a speech, to want to keep your eyes on your written speech throughout your presentation. That way you never get lost or have that terrifying feeling of not knowing what you’re going to say next. That is why many people, not skilled at talking in front of crowds, write out their speeches word for word and just read it to the group. While I do believe that a speech of more than a few minutes should be written out in full. We will deal with that in a future lesson.
Reading a speech leads to a number of issues:
- You have probably been asked to give a speech and not a reading.
- Many adults take offence at being read to
- You are looking down so it is more difficult to be heard.
I learned in my theatre training to “play to the whole audience”, including the last row. By looking up an actor (and speaker) can enunciate and project better. It is simple physiology.
We have taught our grandsons to look people in the eye and smile when speaking to them. They are both autistic and this can be very uncomfortable for them. But we have asked them to push through the uncomfortable feeling anyway. We did this because we have witnessed a generation of young people who make very little eye contact.
If someone is not willing to look us in the eye, we assume that they are not being honest with us. It is human nature. One day these boys will be looking for a job and trying to connect with others. They will have a distinct advantage over those who will not look the interviewer in the eye.
Do not look over the audience’s heads. Many nervous speakers will try this to avoid looking at the faces of the audience. While it may be better than looking down at your paper, it is not eye contact. People will wonder who is behind them who is so important that they get all your focus.
Eye contact makes the audience look at you. It keeps them attentive. To use eye contact to its maximum value, move your eyes from audience member to audience remember and speak to that individual directly.
Everyone around that individual will actually feel that eye contact and it rivets the listener to you. Don’t stare at one person because you want to take in the whole audience. Also, do not try to make eye contact with the whole audience at once. Don’t float your eyes over everyone without ever stopping or jump around from one person to the next with no rhyme or reason. I see this with amateur speakers who know that they should be making eye contact but really don’t know how. Instead, complete your thought with one person before moving on to another.
If you are not making eye contact with the person or people you are talking to, it will be very difficult to connect with them. I will admit that it is quite difficult to make eye contact from a well-lit stage. It is still your responsibility to look your audience in the eye. So, look where you know they are.
Several years ago, while my wife and I were performing down south, we passed through Mason City, Iowa. We stopped at the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum because my wife wanted to see Bill Baird’s World of Puppets exhibit. As a Master Puppeteer, she was very interested in seeing his puppets. Some of Baird’s puppets were in The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews.
While on the tour I learned that Baird always painted a white square into each eye of his puppets to give the illusion of life. This lifelike look helped the audience connect with the puppets in the same way that they connect with a live performer. When we let the light shine in our eyes, we are showing the audience that we are alive and it helps us connect with them as well.
By becoming skilled at using eye contact as you speak to a crowd, you can connect with them. And connecting is a big key to success in public speaking.