The more eyes you see, the better.
Standing up and presenting to a room of people can be intimidating, especially when starting out. It feels weird and unnatural to suddenly have dozens, maybe hundreds, of pairs of eyes all looking right back at you. If you’re on a big stage in a darkened auditorium, that has a different set of challenges as you might not be able to see the audience at all. In either circumstance, how do you know where to look?
The first thing to remember is that you’re speaking to the audience, so you should look at the audience. We’ve probably all see nervous or inexperienced presenters to talk either exclusively to their notes, or to their slides. Sometimes even to their slides behind them! With the exception of awkward tech setups that leave you with little choice, you shouldn’t need to be turning around to face the screen, and your notes are there as reference, not as a script.
Stand firm, relax your shoulders, and look at your audience as you speak to them.
But they’re all staring back!
That’s ok! In fact, that’s great as it means they’re engaged and listening. The more eyes you see, the better. If you start to see foreheads lit by an electronic glow then you’re probably losing attention and need to mix things up. Eyes are good!
Generally, you should start by looking all around the room. Talk to all sections of the audience, looking briefly and making eye contact with individuals before moving on. Remember that the audience might spread out to the sides of the room as well as directly in front of you.
You’ll begin to spot different types of listeners as you scan the room. Some will listen intently with narrowed eye and a face that looks like it’s thinging “hmm, this is a load of nonsense”. Don’t sweat it, they’re just concentrating. Hopefully you’ll spot the best type of listener for any presenter–especially a nervous one–the friendly nodder-smiler. This person can be your best buddy until you’ve relaxed into your presentation. Their smiley nodding head will reassure you that it’s all going to be ok.
There are times when looking directly at individuals becomes unnatural and uncomfortable. In those cases, try talking to the back wall of the room. If you look around and fix your gaze a short distance above the audience’s heads, to any individual it looks like you’re looking at the people sat just behind them.
But I can’t see a soul!
If the room is dark and the stage is brightly lit, you might not be able to see anything but lights and perhaps the front row or two. This can be disconcerting, as you can’t always get a sense if what you’re saying is going across well or even if everyone’s got up and left entirely.
The important point to remember is that even though you can’t see the audience, they can see you, and from their point of view it looks like you can see them. The trick here is to play along and act like you can see them. Scan the room like you normally would. Face out into the darkness and speak into the void and it’ll look totally natural.
Advent speaker tips: this is part of a series of tips for public speakers that we’re posting throughout advent. Check back daily during December for more.