Tuesday, March 10, 2009

5 eye contact tips for speakers

After Debbie Friez's guest post on body language last month, these commenters wonder whether the eyes have it--or not. Here's what they wondered:
In terms of body language, I would also love to know more about eye contact and what it communicates...Eye contact is not super-comfortable for me, but I'm afraid it makes me look evasive or dishonest (when I'm not at all). I often wonder how much eye contact is passable, professionally.


Cultural sensitivity can transform these tips [into] a nuanced strategy. For example, Native Americans consider direct eye contact, particularly with an elder, a sign of disrespect.
Other colleagues have shared variations on this theme, wondering whether eye contact is necessary or even good. "I was trained in acting never to look at the audience," one said, and another noted she was taught as a youngster that gazing directly at any adult, regardless of culture, is disrespectful.

So let me clear something up: Eye contact with the audience is essential for speakers, whether you're in a small meeting or addressing a crowd of 1,000. Failing to use eye contact means you're losing one of the most important tools you have to connect and convince your audience about your message. In the speaker-audience relationship, your very position establishes you as the leader of the group--at least for the duration of your talk. Research shows that looking away from your audience signals avoidance, looking at them signals approach, and that audiences rate it highly. It's important, however, to use eye contact as you would any other presentation tool: wisely and well. Here are five ways to make sure your "eyes have it" in your next speech:
  1. Be sure you look at all sections of the room. Don't ignore one side or the other, or favor those in front without looking to the rear of the room. If you have trouble remembering to do this, write directions to yourself in your speech text -- "LOOK REAR," "LOOK LEFT" -- as reminders to vary your general gaze.
  2. Be sure to look briefly and directly at individuals as well as sections. Audiences can sense when you're not connecting, so don't just look at the left side wall--take a moment to drop your gaze to someone seated in that section. Then move on.
  3. Use eye contact to emphasize an important point. Eye contact is an important tool for visual learners, and can help audiences to remember and retain what you're saying. Use it to emphasize what you want them to recall, to indicate a specific group in the audience, or to refer to what a previous speaker or questioner pointed out.
  4. Plan ahead for cultural concerns. I recommend that you research your audience in advance whenever possible, and some cultures, particularly non-Western ones, do find prolonged, direct gazes to be rude or even provocative. (The opposite is true in Western cultures, by the way--so avoiding eye contact can lead your audience to attribute negative thoughts to you.) Check out this Wikipedia article on eye contact issues, and talk to the meeting hosts for advice in advance.
  5. Check your eye contact with some video practice. In my trainings, I often find that speakers are unaware of where their eyes are traveling. Like any form of gesturing--and that's what moving eyes are--you need to have intentional, rather than unintentional moves. Even the simplest video camera can help you see what others see--before your speech. Then check my advice on how to replace what I call "visual ums" that may interfere with your ability to connect with your audience.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your I contact points. I believe you have left out an important mistake that many make in public speaking eye contact. That is:

They fail to look at a person for any period of time. They "spray" their eye contact all over the room. I have found that the best eye contact is where a complete thought is finished while looking at a single person. Then look at another in another part of the room and complete another thought.

This is a very important topic and I'm glad you mentioned it.

Gene Grindle

eloquentwoman said...

Thanks, Gene--that's exactly what I was trying to convey in point #2, that speakers shouldn't gaze at a section (or spray, as you put it) but at individuals. Otherwise, to my mind, it's not actual contact!

Sarah Gershman said...

Great post, Denise. I would add to it the power of keeping your head still while looking at individuals. I am in awe of how the late Patrick Swayze is able to do this while he is dancing, and I think speakers can learn from him.

By keeping his head completely still, he is able to make absolute eye contact with Jennifer Grey.

I just posted about this in my speaking advice blog, sarahgershman.blogspot.com.

I would appreciate feedback!