There is no better feeling when you are watching a speaker than when he or she gives you eye contact; it seems as if they are talking directly to you.
Giving eye contact when public speaking is also a very challenging skill to get right, and not just for beginners. First off, many people worry as to exactly who they should be looking at. Another challenge to overcome is that by giving eye contact you, the speaker, can see everyone staring at you (and that can be disconcerting).
The temptation is to stare down at your notes and hope if your audience are invisible to you then you will become invisible to your audience. But here is the rub; the audience will look at you because you are the messenger delivering the message. Under those circumstances, where else are they supposed to look?
So you might as well take a leap of faith and look back at them.
One of the challenges is to decide who to make eye contact with. The answer is that you have to give the impression that you are giving eye contact with the whole audience. Would you feel short changed if you went to a concert and the artist spent the whole performance singing to just one part of the crowd and never once even glanced over in your direction? Of course you would; and yet I see countless speakers doing just that.
Of course, depending upon the size of the audience, it might not be possible to give everyone eye contact. The key is to give the impression that you have given everyone eye contact. The further back people are in the audience, the more likely they are to believe that you gave them eye contact when you were actually looking at the person to their left. From a distance, the members of the audience cannot work out who exactly you are looking at but they will get the impression that you were talking to them. So it is not essential to give eye contact to everyone. The closer people are to you, the more specific your eye contact will have to be.
One common mistake that many presenters make is to believe that they need to stare people out. If you are with a group of friends chatting do you look each of them in the eye all the time when you are talking? Certainly not, they would feel like you are interrogating them! What we actually do is glance in their direction. Likewise when you are making eye contact in public speaking you are not trying to work out the colour of their eyes. A simple glance at their eyes for no more than five seconds is all that is required.
Here is a little cheat for those of you who are nervous about looking into people’s eyes, even for just a few seconds. If you are uncomfortable, look at their forehead instead. Many people will think you are looking at them anyway. The purist public speakers will probably sneer at this trick, but if I were in the audience I’d prefer have to work out if a speaker is looking at me (even if it is more forehead) rather than have a speaker not look at me at all.
Once you become comfortable at giving eye contact you will wonder what all the fuss was about. You will glance around regularly taking in different faces in the audience as you go. Confident speakers will look up without even thinking about it. Rather like when you drive a car you will naturally change gears without thinking, so experienced speakers will just sense when to give eye contact.
So whilst it can be daunting, giving eye contact when public speaking is one of the easiest ways to build rapport and engagement with your audience.