Eye contact is a powerful form of communication.

In public speaking, it’s one of the main elements we use to establish trust, warmth, and connection with our audience members. If that’s true, why do so many of us have a habit of looking at the floor, or at the ceiling, or away from the audience when we are speaking?

Contrary to what you might think, it’s not an avoidance technique or a nervous reaction. Instead, it’s a natural response tied into how our brains are wired and how we’ve evolved to cooperate.

Why Do We Look Away?

Research Digest says that eye contact consumes our cognitive resources. Especially during things like speaking. Dr. Christian Jarrett says, “That’s why the more complicated the story you’re telling (or excuse you’re making), the more likely you are to need to break off eye contact.” In other words, it consumes our brain power. So when we are speaking and we need to think, it makes sense that we would look away.

Meaning is being exchanged when look at someone. Communication is happening. Researchers Shogo Kajimura and Michio Nomura had some interesting findings in their 2016 experiment. They found that eye contact while speaking actually creates an “interaction and interference of verbal and non-verbal channels.” That’s why we instinctually break eye contact when thinking or speaking. We have to shut down the nonverbal distraction so that we can focus on what needs to be said.

This happens frequently in public speaking as we pause to collect our thoughts or stop to think of the exact way to phrase something. So we know why we break eye contact, let’s look at some research that will motivate us not to whenever possible.

Why Should We Maintain Eye Contact?

There’s a vast body of research out there that proves the power of eye contact. One particularly interesting study comes from the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. This study found that audience members liked a performer’s music better if the musician made eye contact with the audience. It’s not hard to see how this could easily translate to presenting. It’s no leap to assume that audience members will like a speaker’s message more if the presenter makes eye contact during the message. But why? It turns out it might have to do with how we evolved.

In an article in The New York Times, Michael Tomasello, Co-Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology poses what he calls the cooperative eye hypothesis. This theory says that our eye contact evolved as a method of both cooperation and communication. So our need to meet and follow the gaze of other humans is purposeful. We have a history of needing to work together. Eye contact allows us to do that more effectively and efficiently. That could be why we think a diverted gaze or lack of eye contact indicates that someone has something to hide or is not interested in working with us. When we maintain eye contact, it communicates, “let’s cooperate; we are in this together.”

It helps to know that when you divert your gaze during a presentation, you aren’t avoiding the audience. Instead, you are focusing in on one channel of communication. But it’s also helpful to know that when the audience sees you look away, they might have negative perceptions. They might assume you are hiding something or aren’t interested in cooperating with them in the communication process.

When we understand the science behind eye contact and what it means to us as human communicators, we can work to make it a priority when we present.

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