Public Speaking Tips for Eye Contact
‘The eyes are windows to the soul’
‘The eyes shout what the lips fear to say’
‘The tongue may hide the truth, but the eyes – never!’
As these three quotes suggest, in communication, the eyes are very important.
And maybe an even better way of putting it is to refer to a statement that I am sure most of us have heard during our childhood:
‘Look me in the eyes and tell me that!’
It seems that most of us instinctively tend to avert our eyes when we are not telling the truth, and most parents have realised that.
Unfortunately some of us when we grow up learn to overcome that instinct, but on some level the connection between eyes and honesty is hard-wired into our heads.
I am going to give you three reasons why eye contact is such an important ingredient in successful Public Speaking, followed by 10 ways to improve your eye contact when presenting.
Eye Contact keeps the audience alive and attentive
On the most basic level, if you are not looking at me, you are not talking to me.
Teaching Public Speaking to a room of 25 fifteen year old boys, taught me the value of eye contact in terms of engagement. If you are attempting to engage an audience but, for whatever reason, fail to make regular eye contact with them, you are probably not connecting with them. And for those of you who are particularly keen on your PowerPoint presentations, one danger – and there are many – is that if you become too tied to your slides or your notes, you will lose the ability to personally engage the individuals sitting in front of you through eye contact. If you are trying to connect with a room of fifteen year olds and you lose eye contact even with a small part of the room, you will probably find that a revolution is going to break out in that spot. Eye contact will keep your audience engaged and responsible. If I am in an audience and the speaker never casts his eyes in my direction, as well as not feeling addressed, I might be more likely to quickly check my phone and check my emails. If I know that those eyes could hit me at any time, I feel more compelled to behave!.
Therefore, if nothing else, eye contact will gather your audience together and keep them attending.
Eye Contact makes you seem confident
I used to tease school students – especially if they were a little nervous about speaking – by informing them early on in the day:
‘As we go through today, I really do not care how you feel!....(looks of horror)…
…however… I care an enormous amount about how you seem!’
because as a speaker, ‘seeming’ is what matters! None of us are going to feel completely confident, especially at the beginning of a presentation, but it is important that we ‘seem’ confident.
If you do not seem confident while presenting, I, in the audience, will be getting a little worried:
Is it because you are not confident in your ability to put your point across?
Is it because you are not confident in the truth of what you are saying?
Is it because you are not confident in the relevance to me of what you are saying?
If I start to doubt you, I might then start to doubt everything around you.
This is why good eye contact is an immediate way of countering some of that doubt.
Someone who can look at me immediately seems like someone who is confident in themselves and in what they are saying.
Eye Contact makes you seem honest
Hence the comment above:
‘Look me in the eyes and tell me that!’
Strong eye contact suggests belief, sincerity and trustworthiness.
If you cannot look your audience in the eye, particularly at a key moment or at a stage when you need them to buy into what you are saying, you are giving them an excuse to not believe in you.
10 Tips for improving Eye Contact
The watering can
One image I used to give to school students to help them understand the purpose of eye contact and as a tip for maintaining the correct eye contact was to tell them to imagine that they were a watering can in a room full of flowers. Every flower needs to be watered and any flowers that fall outside the scope of their eye contact would slowly wither and die. So they were encouraged to water all the flowers in the room, equally and regularly. However they should avoid ‘jet-washing’ any particular flower as too much individual eye contact can feel overwhelming to the recipient and cause them to ‘fall over’ under the weight.
No favourites. You need to engage everyone. One particular speaking tip that I often hear and that I recommend students to possibly avoid is when they are told, if they are nervous, to ‘find a friendly face’ in the audience and speak to them. I understand the purpose behind the advice – if you are uncomfortable, try to look for reassurance - however my point is that the friendly person is already friendly and onside. The person you really need to be addressing is the miserable, sceptical, disengaged one. If you want to benefit from the reassurance of a friendly face, then acknowledge it to yourself, bank it, but focus more eye contact on the one that is not with you, because, as indicated above, that is the person who would probably use your lack of eye contact as a further excuse to not engage with your point of view.
Split the room into four
A simple way to remind yourself to engage is to break the room into four sections (depending on the layout of the room, it could be more or less) and spend a few moment in each section and move on to the next, making sure that each section is properly covered. If it is a small audience you may be making eye contact with individuals in that section. If it is a large room and if the audience is sitting in relative darkness and the speaker has a spotlight on them, then make eye contact with the different areas of the room in turn.
A couple of seconds
Make contact for a couple of seconds before moving on. Maybe you could coincide your eye contact with a member of the audience with a complete sentence or idea and then move on to the next person. You want to maintain eye contact long enough to engage with a particular person or part of the room
Avoid being a ‘searchlight’
Being a searchlight is when your eye contact systematically sweeps the room from one side to the other. If I am sitting in the audience and I know your eye contact passes through the audience like a Mexican wave, I can start to predict how long it is going to be until you have scanned the whole room and will look at me again. In public speaking anything that becomes predictable can become distracting. The speaker needs to cover the whole room but it should feel more random and less predictable. This can be a challenge for politicians who are speaking to an auditorium that has two autocues set up to the left of them and to the right of them, when they seem to be moving too mechanically from one side to the other. Interestingly Donald Trump seems to have a tendency of getting stuck on one autocue, which is also not ideal.
Be aware of personal preference
Some people hold your gaze, in which case full eye contact is not likely to feel uncomfortable to them. In fact, if are used to holding strong eye contact themselves, they will expect you to do the same. If your eye contact flits away too quickly they might be more inclined to attribute it to lack of belief or honesty on the speaker’s behalf.
Equally, if the audience member feels uncomfortable under a heavy gaze, too much eye-contact might be perceived as uncomfortable.
Be aware of cultural preferences
In some cultures, particularly between younger people and their elders, too much eye contact can be perceived as being too bold and lacking respect. It is therefore useful to realise as a speaker that sometimes a lack of eye contact from members of the audience might actually indicate a level of respect, rather than a lack of engagement.
I remember hosting a training programme for a society that believed it was not right for women to look men in the eye. It was a group of diplomats under a more forward thinking ruler, who was keen to have his nation represented by women as well as men. However one of the organisers of the event (and please note this was a training session on presentation skills) asked me to make sure that the women delegates did not look directly at the men when they were presenting.
I explained that I understood what he was saying, but I was not sure how well that would work out if we were practising audience engagement. In the end it was agreed that everyone in the room should be free to practise the skills fully.
Maintain eye contact between thoughts
I offer you this one as a ‘it depends’ piece of advice, as it will not always be true for every situation.
On some occasions when you want to maintain full engagement, holding eye contact with the audience will signal continuity and demand attention. On the other hand there are plenty of times in a presentation when you may want to give your audience a moment’s breath as you prepare your next thought. In fact if you feel confident in the audience’s attention, you could actually pause for a couple of moments in silence with your eyes to the floor or scanning the distance and they will sit there in rapt attention waiting for your next utterance.
Allow the content and style of the speech to regulate eye contact
Sometimes a speaker might be talking on a subject that has deep personal emotional significance and their words are like an internal monologue that is being shared with their audience, while the audience feels it is almost eavesdropping on the speaker’s private thoughts. In this case full eye contact may not seem appropriate. When Marc Antony breaks down in emotion in Shakespeare’s famous ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ speech the actor will usually avert his eyes as he tells us
‘My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.’
Since so many meetings are now hosted over the internet, speakers much get used to the idea that an illusion of eye contact is created, not by looking at the images of the participants on the screen, but by looking past them and into the small black camera directly ahead. The great news is that by looking at the camera the speaker is perceived as making eye contact with every individual at the meeting; there is no need for watering cans or breaking the room into four, as full eye contact is through the camera.
And by doing so all the principles of engagement, apparent confidence and honestly are achieved in one go.
The eyes are in important part of communication.
Be aware of their power and influence.