“Is eye contact with your audience really all that important?”
“Can I just look generally towards the back of the room?”
“Can I just look at their foreheads?”
These are questions my college students sometimes ask in my public speaking course. Eye contact is a tricky thing for speakers. But the very reason we try to avoid making eye contact during a presentation is the very reason that we must make it. The paradox is that it is both intrusive and powerful. Many speakers struggle with making eye contact because of its intrusive nature. But it’s also so powerful that we can’t avoid it. We need it. Let’s examine both the intrusive and powerful nature of eye contact, so we can know how to connect with our audiences better.
When we make eye contact with someone, it communicates not just that we see them, but that they have our attention. In a public speaking situation, when a speaker looks up and sees the audience staring back, it’s a reminder that he’s on display. That he has the attention of people who are not only seeing him, but who are forming opinions about him. In order to keep from being reminded of this, some speakers avoid making eye contact with their audience.
There’s a connection to self-esteem here, as well as how comfortable you are as a speaker. Say you are nervous or lacking confidence, and you make eye contact with someone in the audience. You might subconsciously worry that that person can see through you. The eye contact might betray what you are trying to hide. Author of Stress-Proof, Dr. Mithu Storoni says, “Direct eye contact opens a door to the person inside you, without your permission.” Dr. John Amodeo says, “The renowned philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously declared, ‘hell is other people’ due to their capacity to fix us with their gaze and see us as an object rather than in our subjectivity. If we quickly look away, we don’t have to bear the brunt of any possible negative perceptions of us.”
So it can feel intrusive, yes. Especially in situations like public speaking. However, it’s not something we can avoid. Herein lies the paradox. It feels intrusive because it’s powerful, deep, connective. We need to make it a priority in our delivery style for those very same reasons.
When we lock eyes with someone, a subconscious and powerful connection occurs. It’s such an automatic response that it doesn’t even matter if we are looking at a real person. Cornell University researchers found that we respond powerfully to direct eye contact, even if that eye contact comes from a cartoon rabbit on a Trix cereal box.
Research has proven that the longer we engage in eye contact with someone, the more they tend to like us. And that’s more important today that ever before. As we communicate increasingly through tools and technology, the instances in which we can look each other in the eyes happen less and less frequently. So when we find ourselves in a situation like a presentation in which the speaker and audience are in the same room at the same time, that eye contact is a rare commodity. Which makes it all the more powerful.
But gazing directly at your audience doesn’t just make us appear more likeable or credible, it affects how well your audience remembers what you said to them. Researchers found that when you engage in eye contact for about 30% of the time you are relaying information to someone, they will be more likely to remember what you said. So eye contact is directly linked to recall.
As with most things in public speaking, it takes practice to get better at making eye contact with your audience. But now that you know why it can feel intrusive, and also how powerful it can be, hopefully you can make it a priority for your next presentation.
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