We all know (likely because we have been told numerous times) that we must look at our audience when we are speaking with/to them. This does make intuitive sense given that we do want them to feel that we are actually communicating with them and not simply pontificating. However, new technological advances, most notably the use of eye tracking devices in psychological studies, provide us with more targeted information concerning the appropriate amount of eye contact necessary to connect.
I have long been telling my training participants that you need roughly 3-6 seconds of eye contact with your audience in order to 'connect' with them. Shorter is good for acknowledging their presence, but we need that longer time frame in order for them to feel as though we are truly seeing and speaking with them. As it turns out, I was roughly correct.
When speaking with a group of strangers (such as an audience) then making eye contact for 3-5 seconds to connect with and engage them is the right amount. However, when we are meeting with someone one on one, then we need to look at them longer to connect, 7 - 10 seconds. Although this may seem like a fairly lengthy period of time, bear in mind that when we are in conversation with someone, as we likely would be when one on one, we will be both speaking and listening. We will typically look at people more when we are listening, and less when we are speaking, which is one of the reasons why making eye contact when on stage proves difficult for us.
When we are on stage we are speaking all of the time and therefore lack the opportunity to connect with someone while listening. We must therefore push ourselves to make eye contact more consistently with others while speaking, which may go against some of our natural habits. Generally we make eye contact with others roughly about 60% of our conversations, more for African-Americans, less for Asian-Americans.
When we are attempting to persuade someone however, some of the rules shift a little. If we are making a relatively simple request of someone then our eye contact will be a positive benefit in helping us be more persuasive. If what we need is a little more complex though, and we will be speaking about it for a longer period of time (like a speech or presentation), then too much or too long of eye contact doesn't serve us. We will likely be seen as being a little too pushy. Additionally, if our audience has an existing position that opposes our own, then too direct or prolonged of eye contact is likely to strengthen their position rather than sway them to ours. In this case, more eye contact will be associated with dominance and intimidation.
What to do then? When you know that you are going to be speaking about something controversial then reduce the amount of eye contact a little. Fall back to the lower 3 second end of the scale. When speaking about subjects that are fairly safe, or when speaking with those that you already know well, more eye contact will be appropriate.
Of course it is important to actually look at people when you are attempting to make eye contact. None of the 'faking it' suggestions such as: look at their forehead, look between their eyes, look slightly over their heads... works. People know when you are looking them in the eyes and they know when you are not. It is far better to make a solid connection with some than no connection with anyone.
The easiest way to gain some comfort with eye contact is to begin paying more attention to your current conversations. Start with conversations you have with co-workers and friends that you know well and are comfortable with. Pay attention to how you're making eye contact, where you're looking, how long you are engaging them through your eyes. It is far easier to replicate this behaviour, in moments of discomfort, if you are aware of what you do when you are comfortable.
And for even more tips, check out this great resource...