The speaker who initiates and maintains eye focus with the audience has mastered one of the major skills of effective presenting: engaging listeners. Eye focus indicates attention to individual audience members, and it connects them to the speaker.
But what if you're speaking in a space that does not allow you to connect through eye focus? Think of the spaces in which you have presented. Perhaps you've been in the spotlight on a stage or podium, the house lights turned low. While the audience could see you, what you could see was dimness if not darkness, not individual listeners except, maybe, those closest to you.
Similarly, if you've presented in a room around which several screens have been placed, each of those screens drew audience attention. Most of the time, listeners studied the screens—the charts, the graphs, any data displayed—rather than focusing on you. If the screen projected your image, they watched it rather than you. Or perhaps they were looking intently at handouts distributed to the audience before your talk.
Were any of the spaces where you spoke dotted with large tables arranged so that some listeners had their backs to you? A plenary session of a conference, perhaps? Twist and turn as they might, many attendees find it difficult to get eyes on you consistently, negating your attempts to establish eye focus with them.
Yet if you abandon attempts at eye focus, you'll lose your sense of audience. Your delivery will suffer. You'll lose connectivity. Your voice will start to pale, lose expression, fail to offer the variances in pitch, volume, stress, and rhythm which help form meaning and understanding. You might keep your eyes on your notes or slides, either of which means you won't be speaking to your audience. Your body language as well as your voice may start to lose power, transforming the audience into even more of a void.
How can you focus on the eyes of someone you cannot see?
You can't. But, with concentration, you can create some semblance of it. The solution is to fake it, to simulate eye focus.
Look toward the back of the room and focus on the place where a listener probably is. Speak to that spot for ten or fifteen seconds, for the length of a phrase or sentence, and then shift your focus. Move it forward, move it across the room—encompass each area with your gaze, one segment at a time.
If you can catch a listener's eye, do. If you can't, look at people who are not looking at you; they may feel your eyes and look up. Or pause; often a few moments of silence are enough to recall audience attention, giving you connection opportunities. You can also pick a place to look as if you were speaking to a darkened room, and move your eyes randomly from listener to listener.
If it's your image on the screen(s), you can choose to give an intimate talk to one—and thus every—person by looking straight into the camera, using its lens as an intermediary. But if you choose to harness the energy of a big talk, look at the camera only occasionally. The rest of the time look at one audience member and then another, even if they are not looking at you, doing your best to cover all parts of the room.
Some listeners will be facing you—engage them, focusing left, right, center, near and far. Your eye focus will include a few backs, no doubt, but as you move your gaze, try to include in it any audience members who have turned to you.
While none of these presentation scenarios is ideal, you can make the best of each by maintaining the emotion and intensity of eye focus. When you do, you and your audience will remain more attentive, more engaged, more connected. That's ideal.