Quite possibly the single hardest thing for any new public speaker to learn is eye contact. As matter of fact it’s so hard that a lot of bad advice has turned up throughout the years. Possibly the most well-known bad piece of advice is to look just over the heads of your audience in the back of the room. The argument is that it looks like you’re looking them in the eye, but the fact is that the people in the front three-quarters of the room see you looking at a point behind them and the people in the last quarter of rows will know something is wrong, because they will not be connecting with you on a subconscious level.
I’ve had a few people ask me for advice on how to train themselves to look into the eyes of the audience, and I sympathize with them. Being a recovering shy person myself, I went through a very long struggle trying to get myself to engage with my audience with eye contact. When someone asks me for advice, the first thing I tell them is that it’s a process. The first thing you need to do is feel comfortable in your own public speaking skin. This can only be done by getting in front of people and speaking. After you’ve had some successful speeches and also made a few mistakes and realize that you’re still alive, you’ll begin to feel more confident and looking into your audience’s gaze will become easier.
However, in the mean time you have to make the audience feel like you’re attempting eye contact with them. I discovered how to do this by accident. When I first joined Toastmasters, the first thing I was taught was that I had to make I eye contact with the audience. There were no other options. Before I gave my Ice Breaker speech I watched several evaluators pick off speakers for lack of eye contact. When I gave my Ice Breaker, I became extremely nervous. Almost unconsciously I blurred my vision. Instantly, I realized that I couldn’t see any of the eyes of my audience and I immediately calmed down and felt comfortable. From then until I began to get more confidence I blurred my vision, so I didn’t have to look into my audience’s eyes, but at the same time they thought I was.
Now, veteran Toastmasters and other speaking professionals are pulling their hare out, screaming, “How could you give such terrible advice!” And they would be right. Eye contact means eye contact. The fact is, when I was blurring my vision, I was meeting others’ gaze, but I wasn’t making the subconscious connection. However, when you are fighting stage fright as a new speaker, there really isn’t much more you can do. So, the last piece of the puzzle is this; when you start feeling more confident, spend a part of each speech without blurring your vision. You will begin to find that your tolerance will rise a little more each time and you will achieve that highly coveted eye contact before you know it.