When Public Speaking, Look At Individuals Instead Of The Entire Group

The next time you're asked to lead a meeting, teach a class, or give a speech, here's one way to get everyone's attention: Look at individual people instead of letting your gaze settle on the entire group.

Image via flickr.

As you give your speech or present your information, make eye contact with a single member of your audience. Choose a person who is already looking at you; this isn't a Glare of Shame to try to get someone off their phone. After you've had a brief moment of connection, make eye contact with another individual — and chances are, a few more pairs of eyes will already be turned your way.

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We Are Attracted to Attention — Especially if It's Not Being Directed at Us

Here's why this technique works: Humans are attracted to attention. When you look someone in the eye, the rest of the audience will notice that you're paying attention to someone. They will start watching you more carefully; first to see what you're doing, and second because they're hoping you might pay attention to them next.

This technique also works because eye contact is a powerful tool. When you meet someone else's eyes, you invite them to engage with you, and they immediately become more receptive to what you have to say. This is the kind of skill that politicians and motivational speakers master — and so can you.

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Want to see this technique in action? Watch Amanda Palmer's Art of Asking TED Talk. During the talk, Palmer discusses the importance of making eye contact while actually making eye contact with individuals in her audience. It's part of what makes her TED Talk so compelling; even though she's not looking directly at us, we can see her looking directly at someone and transfer the emotion and the connection to ourselves.

To Master This Skill, Practise Shifting Your Focus While Speaking

I learned the eye contact technique in grad school, and I've both practised and taught it in many classrooms since. It takes some work to learn how to naturally shift your gaze while speaking, especially if you are focusing most of your efforts on trying to remember the material you're presenting!

However, this technique is easy to practise. The next time you prepare a speech or lecture, try giving the speech while making "eye contact" with different areas of the room. Make eye contact with the bookshelf. Then make eye contact with the window. Practise shifting your focus from the front to the back of the room, or from left to right — you don't just want to make eye contact with people sitting front and centre, after all.

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Eventually, making eye contact while speaking will feel as natural as breathing between sentences. You won't have to think about it; you'll introduce yourself, begin your presentation, and automatically start seeking out the people who are looking your way.

You'll probably find public speaking a lot more enjoyable, too — because you'll be fully engaged with your material, just like your audience.


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