Importance of Eye Contact in Public Speaking (+ 5 EC Tips!)
What makes eye contact such a powerful instrument in public speaking?
The greatest speakers in the world can make the world rumble. The power held by their verbal and visual rhetoric enthralled people. These greats have different styles and ways of delivering their message.
For example, Barack Obama would walk out with a sharp gait and a wide smile. He would settle the audience with humor and deliver his personalized message when they were ready.
Winston Churchill would modulate his voice and often repeat his words, subtly nudging his countrymen to take steps that would be helpful to the nation.
Margaret Thatcher spoke calmly and deliberately slowly, drawing out each consonant and vowel sound so that each one was understandable. She sounded almost monotone, even pompous, but her style held people’s attention.
Different styles indeed, but these speakers have one thing in common: they would make eye contact with their audience. One must master this art to powerfully influence the audience.
Importance of Eye Contact in a Conversation
Eyes are communicators. With a simple look, you can deliver a wide range of emotions and social cues that deeply influence your social interactions. Looking directly or turning your gaze away can have profound consequences.
A direct gaze is often associated with confidence, attraction, and interest, while looking away is related to low confidence and rejection.
Many people also consider making eye contact as a sign of your trustworthiness. Don’t you believe the other person more when they look at you?
Rise and Fall in Attention
In a peer-reviewed journal published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, researchers found that when two people converse, their pupils dilate almost the same size, a phenomenon called synchrony.
This synchronization marks the start of an intense conversation when attention is high.
Therefore, when a speaker makes eye contact with an audience member, they would acquire that person’s attention for a time and then sustain this by delivering a compelling speech.
Attention may falter, but this can be remedied by looking or gazing at the audience member again. That’s probably why Obama would always look at all parts of the room where he was making one of his best speeches!
However, breaking eye contact and disrupting synchrony at different intervals can also be positive. In the same journal, researchers found that breaking synchrony can move the conversation forward because this allows the listeners to move back into their heads and absorb what the speaker is saying.
These observations show that some of us naturally do not maintain eye contact with others during a conversation. Holding someone’s gaze for too long—or not at all—can create awkwardness and reduce the value of a conversation.
Another research published in eNeuro explains how eye contact prepares an audience member’s social brain to empathize with the speaker by describing how it activates the same areas of the brain as that of the speaker.
Eye contact starts at the cerebellum, that part of the brain that anticipates the sensory consequences of certain actions.
Eye contact also triggers a set of brain areas that activates when we move our body parts in the same way as another person. Hence, there is a connection between speaker and the listener.
Making eye contact during conversation tells your partner that you are attentive. Through this gaze, we share intention and emotion. When you are the speaker and synchronize with your audience, they will most likely empathize with your message.
Understanding the Intriguing Subtleties When We Communicate – Not on Zoom Though
Speaking in public demands that you make a good conversation with your audience. The response may not necessarily be verbal – it can be oohs and ahhs, a clap here and there, or laughter.
Making eye contact with audience members can also help you focus and concentrate because the lighting on a stage or some background can interrupt your thoughts.
Looking into another person’s eyes will help clear your mind and, more importantly, calm your nerves. Then you will start to speak slower, more deliberately, and more confidently.
You’ll find it hard to believe anyone who looks away during conversations, and you might disagree with what they are saying.
Sustained eye contact also establishes your authority as the speaker. Maintaining eye contact helps establish your point or perspective. People find it easier to believe people who do so.
The willingness of your audience to be drawn into a conversation also rests solely on how much eye contact you maintain during discussions.
You’ll see them frowning, nodding, shaking heads, and even smiling. They go from passive listeners to active participants as a result.
How to Make Eye Contact More Effectively in Public Speaking
1. Look Into Your Audience as Individual Listeners
Before you start your speech, take some time to pause and scan the room for individual faces (remember Barack Obama?).
Are some familiar? Connect with listeners you think will engage with you and focus on one audience member at a time. You’ll be more confident if you do so.
2. Avert Your Eyes When a Person Grows Uncomfortable
Based on research, breaking off eye contact can propel a conversation forward.
Remember, not everyone appreciates being gazed at directly in the eye and for long periods. Make exceptions in such cases.
3. Prepare Well
Always look at your audience from time to time when speaking.
Looking at the ceiling or floor depicts shyness or unpreparedness. Suppose you can't find the right words for something, pause or say something funny. You will risk disconnecting with your audience when you look away for a long.
Furthermore, better preparation means you spend more energy on your audience, focus on talking, and think less about what to say.
You might also like: How to Prepare for a Speech
4. Involve Everyone in Your Audience
If you’re speaking in front of a large crowd, making eye contact with everyone would be impractical.
Therefore divide the audience into areas and choose one member from each area to connect with.
Shift your from one area to another at well-time intervals, but don’t follow a strict pattern, or you’ll appear unnatural and unrelatable.
5. Make Eye Contact Long Enough to Make a Connection, Then Move On
It is ideal to make eye contact when making a point. The accepted time is about five seconds, enough to get your point across. This reduces the risk of losing focus.
Conclusion: Eye Contact in Public Speaking
We want to make a good impression when we are in a conversation. The same is true when speaking in front of a crowd, and making eye contact is a very effective way of starting a conversation.
Making eye contact during conversation is great; however, you may not want to overdo it. It is easy to get self-conscious in such cases, but looking away isn't ideal either.
The key is to be moderate and natural. When it is natural, it makes for a better conversation and bonds you to your audience.