Look a person in the eye and smile at them and they will smile back. It is part of our inbred human nature. I’m sure you have all seen the bumper stickers, “smile and the whole world smiles with you”. This basic human nature can be a wonderful ally when you are presenting.
Another basic instinct is to avoid eye contact when you are telling someone a lie.
These two traits emphasise the importance of eye contact when you are presenting.
Ideally, you should look each person in the eye for up to about 2 to 3 seconds, the time it takes to say a sentence or make a point. Moving randomly around the room to ensure everyone gains the benefit and feels that you are talking directly to them. With a large audience, where it is not possible to make individual eye contact, split the room into four quadrants and look to each quadrant in turn. The effect will be that everyone in that quadrant will think you are looking at him or her.
With a smaller audience, there will be some people who give better facial feedback to your eye contact than others. They will smile more and look like they are enjoying the presentation more. These are good people to look at when you first start the presentation. They will boost your confidence and calm your nerves but once you are get going and are into your stride be careful not to favour these people too much. They will get more out of your presentation but it will be to the detriment of the others. If you spot a particular individual who is looking bored, give them more eye contact for the next few minutes, hopefully they will then start to respond and pay more attention to what you are saying.
Of course, when you are giving a sales presentation, a useful trick is to identify the decision makers in the audience beforehand and ensure you give them the majority of your eye contact.
When I used to run half-day seminars, I would always get a lower rating from the people I did not look at much. I know now, that you have to look at everyone, not just the people who are easy to look at or who return eye contact. Be careful to look at people round the edges of the room or people who are sitting in the corners at the front, areas that you will not naturally look towards.
You can use eye contact to control an audience and their reactions. If someone looks disinterested give them more eye contact, their interest should soon pick up. By ‘more eye contact’, I do not mean stare at them, but as your eyes move apparently randomly round the room, go back to that person more often than anyone else.
To avoid question time turning into a conversation between one or two people and yourself, ensure that you give the questioner only 25% of your eye contact and the rest of the audience 75%. If you do not want a follow up question from the same person, ensure you are not looking at the questioner when you come to the last part of your answer.
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