Articles about public speaking often talk about the 'audience' as if it is one single entity, thinking and perceiving as one. This can make it very easy to overlook the obvious fact, that from an individual member of the audience's perspective, we never actually present to an audience at all. In reality, we only ever speak to a collection of independently thinking individuals and that each of these people will interpret a presentation slightly differently.
Each member of your audience will see and hear your presentation from their own unique perspective. Once we make this distinction, it becomes clear that we as speakers have the potential to develop a personal level of rapport with each individual. There is no doubt that any presenter that is able to build this type of connection, has the best chance of getting their message across
One of the most powerful ways to build rapport with members of an audience is through effective use of eye contact. To use eye contact, simply look directly at an individual member of the audience for a couple of seconds or long enough to deliver a sentence or two and then move on to someone else.
Don't dwell for too long
It's important not to look at one person for too long as they may start to feel uncomfortable. Keep moving your eye contact from one person to another. But, ensure that you maintain contact for long enough to make a personal connection each time.
Include as many people as possible
Some people advocate planning in advance roughly where they are going to look. I prefer to do this randomly as it is more natural. You certainly want to avoid the 'tennis match' syndrome where your eyes and head simply move from side to side as if watching the ball coming over a net and back! By moving to a new person every two seconds or so, you should you should be able to make contact with most people in a small audience of ten to twenty people at least once during a short presentation.
Larger audiences need a different approach
When presenting to larger audiences, you still need to make eye contact with individuals, but you won't be able to connect with everyone. Instead, mentally break the room into different zones and make sure you make individual eye contact with people in each zone.
Don't let PowerPoint dominate
When you are giving a speech or presentation without notes, it's quite easy to focus on achieving effective eye contact. In fact it's always worth considering if a direct presentation with no slides at all might be the best way to get your message across. However, if you are using PowerPoint, be aware that it is has the potential to reduce eye contact dramatically. To much content on your slides will leave your audience continually viewing the slides rather than looking at you. If you are a nervous speaker, I know this may actually seem preferable to the audience focusing on you! In reality, it's not the ideal way to get your message across, as it will reduce your potential for eye contact.
I personally feel that we should aspire to present in a way that enables the audience to see our facial expressions, body language and eye contact, rather than just looking straight ahead at the screen. PowerPoint is therefore used to best effect when supporting your key messages, in the same way that headlines on the TV screen reinforce the more detailed presentation of the news anchor. Try to create short, simple slides that support your main points, rather than dumping endless amounts of text on to the slides. This type of slide design will enable the audience to briefly take in what is on screen before returning to focus on you.
Eye contact is an incredibly powerful way to develop rapport with audience members. It takes practice, but once you master it, you will find that you are able to do it unconsciously.