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  • Bruce Rule

Eye Contact Will Improve Your Public Speaking

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Eye Contact is The Most Powerful Form of Nonverbal Communication

Looking your audience in the eye will make you a more effective communicator, whether you are doing public speaking or talking to someone in a private conversation.


It’s that simple.   


There are several reasons why eye contact is the most important form of nonverbal communication you can use to your advantage.


First, eye contact builds trust. Studies, including this one, have shown that listeners are more likely to trust people who look directly at them while making a statement than people who avert their gaze. I’m not sure we need studies to point that out, because we have all experienced that in our lives.


Second, eye contact projects authority, which is similar to trust. You can see that in any number of war movies, where the visiting officer walks along the line of men at inspection and looks each of them in the eye before addressing them as a group. It is easier to get people to buy in to whatever action you want them to take if they believe you are in command of your topic. When they believe you are confident in what you are saying, they are more willing to listen. It is much harder to believe that a speaker is an expert when he won’t look you in the eye when he is talking.


Third, eye contact informs you as the speaker. Listeners are sending nonverbal signals whenever you talk. They may show they are confused by something you said, or are bored. You are in a better position to receive those messages and respond accordingly if you are looking at your audience rather than your slides or notes. If you see your audience looks confused over what you just said, you can rephrase and repeat, for instance. On the other hand, if your audience is smiling, nodding and paying attention, you will gain confidence that your message is hitting home.


Fourth, eye contact commands attention. Your listeners are more likely to engage with you when you are focused on them. After all, it is hard to ignore someone who is looking at you when she is talking.


These are just some of the reasons that appropriate eye contact will make you a better communicator.

Five Seconds


Toastmasters and other public speaking organizations tend to advise holding eye contact for about five seconds, or the time needed to complete a sentence or thought, before moving to a different member of the audience. That doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but it can feel like forever when you first start doing presentations. To get a sense of how it feels, try this experiment with friends. Have them hold up a hand while you talk. They should count silently “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc” and drop their hand after “five Mississippi.”          


I have heard some people say you should follow a “90-percent rule” when presenting, meaning you should make eye contact with your audience 90 percent of the time. I don’t recommend a percentage because I don’t think you should concern yourself with measuring exactly how much time you are looking at your audience vs. glancing at your slides, notes or elsewhere. That kind of micromanaging is probably counterproductive.


There are also times when breaking eye contact with your audience may be effective. For instance, maybe an exaggerated eye roll or looking upward in an appeal to the heavens may be a visual way of making a point. 


So don’t worry about hitting a 90-percent target. Just be purposeful with maintaining eye contact and use it as much as you can.

One on One


I should point out that in one-to-one conversations with family and close friends, you can go a bit longer than the typical five seconds or one complete thought.


Be aware, though, a stranger or a casual acquaintance in a conversation may feel uncomfortable with a lot of eye contact, especially if it goes on a bit too long. Also, some people may interpret eye contact that lingers as sexual interest, or flirting, which is bad unless that is what you are trying to convey. In a business setting, maintaining eye contact for an uncomfortable amount of time could lead to trouble if it is interpreted as unwanted attention. As soon as you notice any cue that the person you are talking to is uncomfortable with your gaze, look away and trim the eye contact down. Don’t eliminate it totally, but keep it to the minimum. An uncomfortable listener isn’t going to pay attention to what you are saying, and remember you want to be an effective communicator.


In the next post we will discuss some specific tips on how to eye contact during a meeting or presentation.




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