Eye contact: How much is right, and how to make it look natural

The old advice of looking above your audience members’ heads must go, this speaking coach says. Here’s what to do instead.

I like to start each new year refreshing the basic rules of public speaking.

It’s a good chance to update what we know with the latest neuroscience and to review the current state of the art.

Let’s begin with eye contact. It’s the first rule every speaker learns, yet it remains a difficult topic for many.

In an effort to help terrified speakers, some coaches recommend not looking at the audience, but rather at a point somewhere just above their heads. The idea is that by pretending the audience isn’t there, you’ll feel less anxious.

If that works for you, great. I don’t recommend it, though.

The point of giving a presentation is to connect with your audience. At best, looking over people’s heads is a desperate measure to prevent a meltdown. At worst, it tells the audience that you have no interest in them.

The opposite of never looking at the audience is staring at them for long periods, like some psychotics and badly trained salespeople. The belief underlying this off-putting alternative is this: the more eye contact, the better.

That option is equally untenable. It makes you look like a crazed stalker.

So, what is the best way to make eye contact with your listeners?

Think about a normal conversation. You make eye contact initially to ensure you have the other person’s attention, then you launch into your story. You start looking up, down and sideways for inspiration, recall details and simply give your listener a break. Then, when you’re ready to hand the conversational baton to your partner, you make eye contact again to signal, “Almost done, get ready.”

Real eye contact is occasional, and it helps control a conversation’s ebb and flow. Plus, recent research suggests that we naturally look away when we’re searching for a word. Looking at your conversational partner is stimulating and distracting, so looking away helps you come up with a better word.

Don’t assume, therefore, that someone who is not making eye contact with you is lying. He or she might simply be searching for the right word.

The listener has a greater responsibility to maintain eye contact than the speaker. It shows the listener is paying attention.

All this helps speakers give a natural, conversational speech. The speaker should begin by making eye contact with a few individuals, then look away as he or she gets into the heart of the talk. The speaker should look back from time to time to signal breaks or check that the audience is paying attention. The audience should keep fairly consistent eye contact with the speaker to show interest.

If you don’t know how long is normal to make that initial eye contact, try three to five seconds.

Put these simple steps together to create a conversational presentation. Break a leg!

A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.

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