“Prince Philip was feeling was left out and Fergie was wondering why you were staring at him” are typical of the feedback I give to business presenters when we are focusing on eye contact in my training sessions.
For me, eye contact is one of the most vital elements for effective Presentation Skills and yet most people need to keep working at it long after they have become accomplished in other respects.
And one of the difficulties in coaching people in this area is that you are often working with a very small audience or no audience at all. I soon realised there was little point in saying “imagine all these seats are filled with people” so I got myself some celebrity masks and if the need arises I strap them to the backs of the empty chairs. Then the presenter has some targets for the eye contact they are practicing.
In order to establish the importance of eye contact I often ask those I am coaching about their children. “Are you teaching them to say: ‘thank you for having me’,” I ask. “They may achieve a firm handshake and a heartfelt thank you, but without eye contact it means very little.”
The same applies with grown ups in any situation, but it becomes especially apparent in presentations. You can be a word-perfect smooth talker but without the eye contact you are never going to engage your audience; indeed, you may switch them off or even make them feel excluded.
By the time we get to eye contact in my training sessions we have already clearly established that how you open and how you close are the two most important moments in any presentation. These are what audiences remember, I explain (what psychologists call ‘Primacy & Recency’), but there is much more to it than that. Your opening is where you need to engage your audience – making them sit up, pay attention and, ideally, like you. That needs strong, direct eye contact. Your close is where you deliver your Call to Action – what you want them to remember and do as a result of your presentation. No one is going to do anything for you unless you look them straight in the eye.
Two final tips – one from me and one from a legendary magician. Be sure to spread your eye contact evenly. In order to make everyone feel included this may need some overt moves in order to catch those at the back or to your extreme left or right. Magicians probably know more about eye contact than anyone because they use it to direct attention where they want it and away from their sleight of hand dirty work. Juan Tamariz suggests checking the colour of your audience’s eyes – that forces close eye contact.