The Importance of Eye Contact

Did you turn your head to look at the picture above? Eye contact begins are a very early age is one of the most potent elements of communication. But, critically, it is the one element of communication that can fail in a presentation.

Around presentations, there is a lot of talk about body language. However, nearly all of this – hand gestures, facial expressions, vocal intonation – takes care of itself. You don’t have to remind your hands to move, you don’t have to tell your voice to change pitch with a question; these things happen naturally. But the one element of body language that can fall away when you are making a presentation is eye contact. Why?

This goes to the core of what happens to people when they are under pressure. In a presentation, you have many things on your mind – the laptop, the projector, your time limit, your guide notes, the wobble you’re sure everyone can hear in your voice – and the last thing you want to distract yourself with is the audience. They’re likely to put you off so there is a tendency to shut them out.

When you are concentrating you shut out distractions.

This is not really a fear response so much as a cognitive one. Your brain is overloaded and you need time to think. So you look away. You can observe the same thing at quizzes or in exams where people close their eyes and cover their ears to concentrate more fully. The problem, though, is that lack of eye contact damages a presentation more than any other behaviour.

Listening with Your Eyes

People actually make more eye contact when they’re listening than they do when speaking. The listener has to read the speaker’s lip movements, hand gestures, facial expressions and emotions, so they need to keep their eyes trained on the communicator. And this is an important lesson for presenters because making good eye contact shows that you are listening to your audience.

You make more eye contact when you’re listening (right) than when you’re talking (left).

This may sound a little odd as you are doing most of the talking, if not all of it. However, making good eye contact shows that you are alert to the response of the listeners and open to questions. This has a huge impact on the atmosphere in the room making the audience feel, even if most don’t ask a question, that they could do so. With this, you bring yourself onto the level of the listeners in a very intimate way. Without it, you are just a hologram.

Checking, Not Staring

The way I think of eye contact is not stressing points but asking questions. By looking at the audience you are checking with them – ‘Are you with me?’ ‘Does that make sense?’ ‘Any questions?’ – without saying these things out loud. Imagine that each point you make is a handout and by moving your eyes around the room you are saying to people: ‘Did you get one?’ ‘Did you?’ ‘And you?’ We do exactly the same thing in a conversation where it helps that you can hear the listener say things like, ‘Yes’ ‘Um’ and ‘I see’. They’re not saying, ‘I agree with you,’ but rather, ‘I understand that bit.’ It’s a way of helping the speaker to make sense and the audience in your presentation will be doing exactly the same thing, albeit silently.

So remind yourself to check with the audience. Every time you make a point, take a quick look around the room, seeking out the eyes of people in all corners. This shows them you are listening and has the added benefit of slowing you down which, in a presentation, is never a bad thing.

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