Sometimes I feel like telling people that they should physically grab their listeners by the shirt and say, “Pay attention to my presentation! I want you to understand these ideas because they can help your business succeed. So listen!”

Of course you can’t do that. But that’s why eye contact is so important. The closest you can come to physically grabbing someone and saying, “Pay attention!” is making strong eye contact. Indeed, great eye contact is the most intimate thing you can do during a presentation to help connect you with your listeners.

While most people in business do okay with eye contact, they don’t maximize their connection with the audience by holding eye contact long enough. Most business speakers just look out at their audience and graze them with their eyes, never really connecting with anyone longer than a fleeting moment.

The idea is to make eye contact long enough for the person to feel as if you’ve connected with them, and to give you some sign that you’ve connected. Maybe it’s a nod. Maybe it’s a smile. Maybe they stick out their tongue at you. You just want to connect.

Have Miniature Conversations with Individuals

Great eye contact happens when you look at individual members of the audience long enough to feel like they are responding to you. As I write this, I’m on a flight from Chicago after delivering a program on creating and delivering presentations to a group of prominent architects.

In demonstrating the type of eye contact that was necessary, I looked around the room and connected with Ingrid, an interior designer from Frankfurt, Germany. As I spoke, I maintained the eye contact long enough until I saw her beginning to smile. “Now, I’ve got you,” I thought. “I’ll move to someone else now.”

We do an eye contact exercise in our workshops that powerfully illustrates how important and how often difficult it is to make appropriate eye contact with members of your audience. We have one of our participant’s stand in front of the group. Then we ask all members of the group to raise a hand.

“Talk about what you did on your summer vacation,” we tell the participant. “As you look at each person, you need to make eye contact long enough to get them to put down their hand. And they won’t put their hand down unless they feel the connection. If you just graze past their eyes without really holding it, they are going to leave up their hands. You need to hold the eye contact through a thought.”

It’s an interesting exercise because many of the participants find it very difficult to get those hands to go down. Sure, they make eye contact, most people do, but they don’t hold it long enough. Usually, they make the eye contact quickly and move to the next person, but then they realize that the person they just left still have their hand up in the air. For most people, to get the hands down, you really have to hold it longer than they are used to or comfortable with.

That’s the point. What you think is comfortable in terms of eye contact is probably not enough to give your listener a sense of connection.

A good rule of thumb is to hold the eye contact three to five seconds before moving on. For those who aren’t used to it, this will seem like a long time. Perhaps it will feel inappropriately long, but it won’t bother your listeners. To the contrary, they’ll just get the very nice sense that you’re connecting with them in a personal way.

Joey Asher

Joey AsherJoey Asher has worked with thousands of business people helping them learn how to communicate in a way that connects with clients. His new book 15 Minutes Including Q&A: a Plan to Save the World from Lousy Presentations” is available now. He is also the author three previous books including “How to Win a Pitch: The Five Fundamentals That Will Distinguish You from the Competition”, “Selling and Communication Skills for Lawyers” and “Even A Geek Can Speak.”