A lot of presenters make the mistake of focusing too much on their content and not enough on engaging the audience. No doubt your content is critically important, but if the audience doesn’t feel connected to you or what you’re saying, then all of your hard work is for naught.
Fortunately, engaging your audience is often as easy as making eye contact with them, and there’s cold, hard science behind why it works so well.
For starters, making eye contact with others makes you less nervous. When you’re getting ready to present and you feel butterflies in your stomach, your palms are sweaty, and your heart begins to race, that’s your sympathetic nervous system (AKA your fight or flight response) kicking in. Of course, a racing heart and nausea aren’t too conducive to giving a confident and relaxed presentation. Enter: the social engagement system.
Your social engagement system is mediated by your vagus nerve. According to research, when activated, it can act as a sort of “brake” for the sympathetic nervous system, immediately reducing your adrenaline and slowing your heart rate. One of the easiest ways to activate it? Non-threatening eye contact. In other words, if you’re feeling nervous as all hell walking on stage, making eye contact with a few people in the audience can significantly reduce your nerves in an instant.
The social engagement system also plays an important role in audience rapport. If you want to build a rapport with your audience, ie connect to them, then they need to feel like they can relate to you. Research suggests that when you make eye contact, thereby activating your social engagement system, it makes your audience feel safe and more at ease, which in turn makes them “more willing to be relational and take in new information.”
Even better, making eye contact with your audience also makes them more willing to participate. According to a 2002 study, the amount of eye contact a person receives during a conversation is directly proportional to how much they choose to participate in an activity. Therefore, if you take time to look audience members in the eye, they’ll feel more inclined to be participants in your presentation rather just witnesses to it.
In addition to making you less nervous, helping to build audience rapport and promoting participation, making eye contact also makes your presentation more memorable. A classic 1980 study found that when teachers made eye contact with students, it significantly improved their information recall after class. Moreover, additional research found that being looked at by another person “acts as an associative ‘glue’ for perception, memory, and decision-making.” In other words, when you look your audience members in the eye, they’re better able to perceive, remember, and make decisions about what you’re saying.
So, the next time someone tells you to make eye contact, don’t brush it off as nothing more than cliche advice. This simple, science-backed trick is the key to delivering an excellent presentation that your audience will remember, relate to, and want to participate in.
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