Like it or not, our eyes give us away, and your audience will be able to tell whether you are only ‘talking at’ or ‘connecting with’ them. Our eyes give people a deeper understanding of our emotions and how we are processing them on a psychological level. Therefore, making effective eye contact is crucial to establishing credibility with your listeners. Often, we make eye contact during everyday conversations without even thinking about what we are telling the other person. Unconsciously, we are making decisions and determining the other person’s mood with every look they give us, and vice versa. However, when people speak in public, they become aware of their eyes and try to change how they make eye contact, usually without realising it. Eye contact is one of the most powerful tools you have to build rapport with your audience. However, far too many speakers throw away the opportunity by looking back at a screen, up toward the ceiling, down at the floor, or anywhere else except into the eyes of audience members.

Where should I look?

“Where should I look?” is a common question that new public speakers often ask. I have found that a presenter will automatically begin making effective eye contact with their listeners once they understand why they should look at people one by one when addressing an audience. Here are some reasons why you should look at people:

Improved concentration

We communicate mostly by body language (55 percent) and tone of voice (38 percent of the time). Only a small proportion of the words we use are heard. That is because we are bombarded by a staggering 2 million bytes of information per second, and though our brains can hold more, they have been conditioned to retain only 134 bytes per second. We must filter the events in our lives through our conscious and unconscious minds before we give them meaning. For example, you are giving a speech, and you are determined not to look at anyone in particular. You heard that looking above people’s heads helps settle nerves. As you allow your eyes to flick around the room, you find yourself regularly looking at the clock on the back wall. Unconsciously each time your eyes fall on the clock, you find you repeat the current time to yourself—you’ve become distracted by ‘time’. Your concentration improves as you focus your eyes, and by making eye contact, you reduce the possibility of any significant distractions.

Increased credibility

A speakers credibility and authority increase as they connect with their audience. If you are diverted in any way from what you are saying, you are not focused on what you want your audience to hear. They feel disconnected from you, and if you are not focused, you begin to lose credibility. You might falter since your brain is sending subconscious messages to you. By making eye contact, you reduce the possibility of looking less credible.

Building rapport

Eye contact builds rapport with the audience and encourages them to listen to you because they are interested in what you are saying. When you look someone in the eye, they are more likely to look at you. If they look at you, then they will listen to you, and the odds of believing in both you and your message rise exponentially. When your listeners see your eyes connecting with theirs, they instinctively sense that they are invited to engage with you. They feel encouraged to signal how they feel about what you are saying—with nods, frowns, or incredulous raising of their eyebrows, or even applause. When you do not look people in the eye, they are less likely to pay attention to you. When they stop paying attention to you, their minds begin to wander on to other things. When that happens, they stop listening to what you are saying, and your message is lost. By making eye contact, you build rapport.

Audience members change from passive to active participants

As you deliver your speech or presentation, conveying your message using gestures, vocal variety and effective eye contact, your audience will respond with gestures and facial expressions, and perhaps some noise. This is the strongest indication that your speech or presentation has transformed into a two-way conversation—your audience has unconsciously participated in your speech. By making eye contact, your listeners are more likely to become active participants.

Monitor the reaction of the audience

To be successful when presenting to an audience, you must respond to what your listeners are indicating. For example, when you see scepticism, you might say, “I know it seems hard to believe. However, if you donated 1% of your total income you will help bring about freedom of…” Whatever happens, do not be discouraged if you do not receive an encouraging signal from your listeners. Keep going, and move to the next person. By making eye contact, one can monitor the reaction of the audience.

Using the powerful pause

Your speaking rate will instinctively slow down when you actively look someone in the eye for three or four seconds. In fact, you will discover that you can effectively use the powerful pause to allow the listener to process the information you are communicating. US President Barak Obama has become a powerful orator using this technique. You can use a powerful pause to encourage your listeners to absorb what you are saying and assess the audience’s reaction by making eye contact. We all feel peculiar when we stare into the eyes of someone for a few seconds when we are not speaking, but in speech, giving it is not a ‘challenge,’ and nor is it rude. You are ensuring that important parts of your communication are being heard and felt by your listeners. You are showing empathy while appearing confident and sincere.

Samantha Richards is a Public Speaking and Communications Consultant and founder of ‘Building Voices Communication’. She is an award-winning public speaker who is the top female public speaking coach in Australia (Yahoo Finance). She is currently studying for a Diploma in Counselling and is passionate about helping others communicate confidently.