The Importance of Eye Contact in Authentic Public Speaking

By Lou Solomon

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My neighbor Matt practices a rare and powerful social habit. When he sees you, he immediately stops what he’s doing, directs his full attention, and makes eye contact with you. He is 100% committed.

Acknowledging another person by genuinely seeing them is an authentic human moment. Matt asks how you’ve been, and it’s much more than a half-hearted pleasantry. He doesn’t trap you in a lengthy conversation but lets you know he sees and appreciates you.

Conversely, I once worked with a woman named Jenn, who never looked you in the eye and only gave you a half-smile now and then. She was nervous and self-conscious, and her eyes were downcast or looking away.

There’s a glitch in the human radar we count on to size up other people. When someone like Jenn avoids connecting with us because of self-consciousness, we still interpret the “signal” as unlikeable, even untrustworthy. Either way, you’ll lose the opportunity to communicate with an individual or an audience when public speaking.


Synchronization

Authentic Speaking is the synchronization of the message, vocal presence, and physical delivery of the speaker. Eye contact is an essential part of delivery, and it helps triggers a response from the audience — to join the speaker in a moment of shared attention.

If you make eye contact with audience members, share compelling information based on your knowledge, add a story, and leave room to “feel” your relationship with us; we will feel it, too.


8 Tips for Extending Your Eye Contact

When people come to hear your talk, they are hoping for something meaningful, and they want to connect with you as the source of your message.

Too little eye contact signals you are uneasy, unprepared, and insincere. Audience members will doubt your sincerity and command of your material.

However, making eye contact in a relaxed way, coupled with a message that is meaningful to you, will give you space to develop a relationship with listeners.

Here are eight tips for extending your eye contact when speaking publically:

1.) Self-Awareness

You don’t have to improve overnight. Begin noticing how you make eye contact throughout the day. Do you glance at people, or do you really see them? What do you notice about how others make eye contact?

2.) Mini-Conversations

When you speak, have “mini-conversations.” Speak to individuals as though, at that moment, they are the only other person in the room. Too many speakers look around the room like a pinball, bouncing from one person to the next. Or we sweep the room from side to side — never resting on anyone long enough to connect.

3.) Own Your Message

Speak from your knowledge, not your slides or your script. Use “real-speak” and your conversational style.

4.) Practice

Asking your teammates to help you practice and provide feedback can be transformational. When it’s time to present, you can enjoy the conversation.

5.) Don’t Prioritize Slides

Too many speakers use text-heavy slides and focus on them instead of the audience. Authentic communication creates trust, and slides provide only secondary information.

6.) Manage Your Notes

You can glance at notes occasionally, but make eye contact with your audience when you’re delivering the information. Public speakers who read their presentation from the slides or notes make the worst impression.

7.) Face People

Be inclusive by turning toward listeners on all sides of the room, and let your eyes follow. When someone from one corner of the room asks a question, turn your torso toward that person, signaling that you’re giving them your full attention.

8.) Move

Walk away from the podium to get closer to your audience. Look at individuals in the eye. Create a conversation, not a presentation that features only you.

These tips apply to most Western cultures, but what’s appropriate in some cultures might be inappropriate in others. Study cultural differences when visiting foreign countries.


What is the Ideal Length of Eye Contact?

A common question about eye contact is, “How long should I look someone in the eye?” In Western cultures, the three-second rule is a good guideline.

I once worked with an executive named Tony, who stared at people when he daydreamed. He didn’t realize it, but he made people uneasy. As he became more aware, he was able to overcome the habit.

Another abuse of eye contact happens when someone is trying too hard to sell or persuade us. A hard sell coupled with dominant eye contact causes us to shut down.

In my experience, only a few speakers have a problem with excessive eye contact, while most offer too little eye contact.


Eye Contact Is Essential

Eye contact is not everything, and it won’t create a relationship. For that, the public speaker needs to understand and care about listeners’ needs, craft a relevant and meaningful message, and tell a story that captures the hearts and minds of the audience.

Still, eye contact is essential. What gets in the way? We spend too much time staring at slides and focusing on the information. We obsess over the words of our script, and we don’t practice enough to own the message.

When we avoid eye contact, we overlook the most human way of connecting with and appreciating others.


Want to Hone Your Eye Contact Skills?

If you are looking to practice your eye contact and authentic speaking skills, try our Your Authentic Speaking Style™ course. It is Interact Studio’s acclaimed in-person on-camera learning experience, where you will find your voice, amplify your presence and grow your influence.

If you want to learn more about Your Authentic Speaking Style™, click here.

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