Most people have never heard of Buck Owens and the Buckeroos, but he sang a very popular lyric many years ago that went “all I gotta do is act naturally.” That’s the first thing to keep in mind about eye contact. Be as natural as possible; no darting, shifty glances, no staring at neck ties or the ceiling. Ix-nay, okay? Keep it natural.
Let’s put first things first. The expression in your eyes should be warm, welcoming, and non-judgmental. If you’ve seen the movie “Avatar,” you should look at the audience with the same expression as the Navi people. They greeted each other by saying, “I see you” and this implied understanding and acceptance.
The second basic principle of eye contact is to build bonds with audience. There are two things to keep in mind here. (1) Timing is key. Use the “one thought, one look” rule. In other words, look at someone and complete expressing an idea before switching eye contact to another audience member. By the way, if you have a non-verbal segment and you’re walking around for effect, use my two hippopotamus rule. Count: one hippopotamus, two hippopotamus, break eye contact, one hippopotamus, two hippopotamus. (2) Distribute your eye contact evenly, many right-handed people tend to look at people in front of themselves and to their right, seldom looking at people to their left. Try to be more even-handed about which section of the room you look at. Believe it or not, some audience members feel left out in the cold if you favor the same sections over and over.
Let’s move on now to considerations of the type of audience you have. Are you sitting at a conference table with small audience? Follow the general rules of timing and distribution of eye contact that I just described. Are you standing in a room with 20-30 people seated? Follow the same general rules, and tilt your head forward slightly so they see your face more squarely. Are you in an amphitheater with 100 to 1,000 people at various levels? This is a bit different. Again, tilt your face up slightly and spend most of your time looking at people a bit above your eye level. Of course, you will be looking at people to your right and left. Just remember to include people in front row and way in the back. Lastly, is a camera recording you without a live audience? Here, I think you need to do some homework and study the professionals. Watch your favorite network newscaster. Simulate the eye contact of the anchor you like most.
What are some other common issues? Walking around the stage decreases eye contact. But, sometimes, you need to move from center stage to stage right or left. Just remember to establish eye contact as soon as you arrive at your destination. You should have practiced your speech enough to know what to say instead of looking around wondering what to say next. Show the audience that you walked over for a reason, and that you value connecting with them.
Another common problem comes from culture or upbringing. Do you feel uncomfortable looking people in the eye? Practice looking at bridge of people’s noses. Most of your audience is too far away to tell you’re looking at their noses instead of their eyes. One final tip is to use Teddy Bears during rehearsals. Practice looking into their eyes (or noses) until you feel confident.
I know this is a lot to take in, but keep at it and you will improve gradually. Do you remember the Rule of Seven from my stage fright video? By the forty-ninth try, all you gotta do is act naturally.