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.

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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.

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