Wednesday, August 24, 2011

From the vault: Is eye contact good or bad? 5 tips for speakers

After I published a guest post on body language, 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. If someone asks a question, look at her when you start your answer, then let your gaze expand to the rest of the room to include them as well.
  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.) Keep in mind, however, that staring is one thing when a stranger does it for no apparent reason in a social environment. If you're the speaker, particularly in a business setting or at a major event, you're in an automatic position of authority, and you will often have more leeway. Check out this Wikipedia article on eye contact issues, and talk to the meeting hosts for advice in advance. Don't avoid eye contact just for cultural concerns.
  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.
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