How to use eye contact when presenting to bigger groups

Eye contact is essential to effective communication – but with larger groups it can be hard for people to see your eyes. What’s the answer? 

‘The soul […] has an interpreter – often an unconscious but still a faithful interpreter – in the eye.’ So wrote Charlotte Brontë in her own version of that oft-repeated trope about the eyes being the window of the soul.

And so, of course, they are. The expression in our eyes tells people what’s really going on in our hearts and our heads. When we are excited our pupils can dilate to up to four times their original size, while negative or angry emotional states will cause our pupils to shrink.

Check for a reaction

Maintaining eye contact with individual attendees is a no-brainer for effective presenting.

If an audience member feels you are talking to them, they will nod and smile. Their eyes will light up or shine as Benjamin Zander says (see video below). You can use these reactions to help gauge your pace and modulate your delivery.

So it’s crucial you check in for your audience’s reaction every so often, just as you would if you were having an intimate conversation with a friend.

Connecting with bigger groups

When presenting to larger groups, although it can be hard for everyone to see your eyes, it’s still vital that the audience feels that connection.

Once audience sizes grow beyond 50, it becomes harder to share your eye contact equally. A simple technique is to pick individuals within groups placed around your auditorium. As you speak directly to those people – holding their gaze as you do – the 20 or so people around them will feel that you are also speaking to them.

As long as you are covering your entire area in these smaller groups, your audience will feel involved and connected. As you return to your previous groupings, find different people and follow the same principle.

Learn from an expert: Benjamin Zander

Benjamin Zander's TED talk on the transformative power of classical music is a wonderful example of how to fully connect with a larger group of people – over 1,500 in this case! – and check for reactions to gauge where and when to shift the pace.

His connection is so complete with his audience that he spends most of his time in amongst them…

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