Speech coaches often tell anxious public speakers to scan the audience for a few seconds before saying a word. That’s bad advice.
As your eyes dart around the room or glide over a sea of expectant faces, you’ll think, “Wow, that’s a lot of people. I better not mess up.”
Your nervousness will increase and you may feel more self-conscious. If you see too many blank faces, you may assume the audience is already bored with you.
“Speakers typically worry about what to do with their hands, but they’d be better off if they paid attention to where they put their eyes,” says Kevin Daley, the founder of Communispond, a New York-based training firm.
The best strategy is to briefly lock eyes with one person at a time. Divide the crowd into four quadrants and establish about one second of eye contact with an individual in each quadrant. This way, it appears as if you’re visually enveloping the room.
Scout the venue before your speech. Confirm that the lighting will allow you to see into the audience. Beware of overhead spotlights that blind the speaker. If you plan to show slides, make sure that no one dims the lights prematurely and prevents you from seeing the crowd.
If you notice someone yawn, smirk or get up to leave, take it in stride. Shift your focus to a new face without getting fazed.
As a rule, forge eye contact with those people seated farthest from you in each quadrant. Rookie speakers sometimes see friends in the front row and spend too much time talking to them, thus excluding the rest of the audience.