Eye Contact

… a core concept in Communication Skills and Atlas 109

EyeContactConcept description

Eye contact impacts one’s ability to connect with an audience and, by extension, one’s effectiveness as a speaker.

In his presentation, How to Make Eye Contact with Your Audience (reference below), TJ Walker cites Bill Clinton as describing his technique as:

“I picked one person in the audience, and I had a private one-on-one conversation with that person for a full thought, and then I went to another person in the audience and I really looked at them and I held a private conversation with that person for a full thought.”

Walker notes that Clinton was only looking at someone for four or five seconds, but compared to the typical speaker it seems like eternity. He says anyone can employ Clinton’s technique, “it is simple”.

In his article, Simple Secrets to Improve Your Eye Contact, Andrew Dlugan (reference below) says:

“Eye contact is (or should be) a natural technique for speakers. Nearly every day, we have conversations with friends and family that are greatly enhanced by shared eye contact, and we are barely conscious of it, if at all.

Unfortunately, this “natural” ability dissolves for many speakers when they stand in front of a crowd. … Why do speakers look at [other] things? Because it can be uncomfortable to look at the audience. Doing so confirms they are looking at us, and that can make us feel vulnerable! … Eye contact alone will not make or break your next presentation. Great eye contact won’t save a poor presentation, and poor eye contact won’t doom an otherwise fantastic presentation. Compared to your content, eye contact is clearly secondary.

However, eye contact is a valuable delivery tool you can use to enhance your presentation. Effective eye contact improves your connection with the audience, and that is always a good thing.”

Getting more eye contact

Dlugan suggests six strategies for producing more eye contact:

  1. Prepare better. Most speakers (myself definitely included) look up, down, or to the side when struggling to “find the right words” to express a certain thought. Do it once or twice — no problem. Do it for minutes at a time (or worse, the entire presentation), and you risk disconnecting from your audience. Better preparation means you spend more energy and focus talking, and less time thinking of what to say.
  2. Avoid eye crutches. When you put lots of text on your slides or write out your entire speech on notes, your eyes will gravitate there no matter how hard you resist. This is true even if you know your material. Take these crutches away. (Some notes are fine, but if you must read from notes, practice the reading techniques recommended by James C. Humes in Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln.)
  3. Warm up early to the audience. Most speakers have poor eye contact at the beginning of their presentation, improving only as the bond with the audience improves (e.g., they start to laugh, nod, and engage). This is natural for humans; it’s hard to connect immediately with total strangers. So, warm up to your audience as early as possible. How? I find the best way is to meet as many of them as possible before your presentation begins. By the time you start speaking, at least some of them won’t be “strangers” any more.
  4. Keep the lights on. Dim rooms tend to produce drowsy audience members. If their eyelids are shut, they can’t connect with you. (Occasionally, your slide visuals demand turning the lights low, so it’s a tradeoff.)
  5. Ensure clear sight lines. As much as possible, set up the room and position yourself to avoid barriers between your eyes and those of your audience.
  6. Get closer to audience members. Do what you can to reduce the physical distance between you and your audience members. If the setting allows it, encourage them to sit in the front rows. Move their chairs closer during room set-up. Step forward in the “speaking area.” Getting closer makes the setting a bit more intimate, like those 1-on-1 conversations with friends where eye contact comes easy.
Getting better eye contact

Dlugan suggests six strategies for producing better eye contact:

  1. Express emotion with your eyes. Eye contact establishes a communication path, but it is only valuable if you deliver meaning. Keep your eyes alive. Show happiness, sadness, surprise, excitement, confusion, or whatever emotion matches your words at a given time.
  2. Ensure eye contact as you deliver all critical lines. Nobody expects you to sustain eye contact for an entire 60-minute seminar. (It is fatiguing!) However, be sure to elevate the effectiveness of key lines by making sure you are looking at your audience. This includes your opening, your closing, and all other critical lines throughout. If you couple this with expressing suitable emotion, the impact of your words will be much stronger.
  3. Avoid ping-pong. If your eyes bounce left and right across the room as if you were watching a tennis match, you’re doing it wrong. Instead…
  4. Sustain eye contact with someone for a few seconds, then move on. Aim to sustain your eye contact for a few seconds, or about the time it takes you to deliver an average-length sentence. There’s no magic minimum or maximum; you’ll just know. (If you really have trouble, solicit feedback from a trusted colleague. Ask them if your gaze is too short or uncomfortably long.)
  5. Connect with your audience’s eyes, if possible. When the size of your audience and the venue allows, aim to connect directly with their eyes. (Don’t look at their bodies, over their heads, etc.) This isn’t always possible (e.g., large venues; stage lighting) so don’t sweat too much either way.
  6. Focus on the audience member during Q&A. When fielding questions, be sure look at the person as they speak. Show them that you value their contribution. (Bill Clinton is a master at this.) Continue to look at them as you begin your response, but then transition back to the entire audience.

Rebecca Zammit, Public Speaking Tips: Use The Power of the Eyes to Master Public Speaking, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vm1knTgMDic, accessed 31 January 2016.

Improptu Guru, 2009, Eye Contact – The Triangle Method, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRdDdS5aZMM, accessed 31 January 2016.

Expert Village, 2008, Public Speaking Tips – Eye Contact, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-4AwcgJkrQ, accessed 31 January 2016.

Alex Rister, 2013, 3 Eye Contact Myths… and How to Avoid Them In Your Speech, at http://sixminutes.dlugan.com/eye-contact-myths-speech/, accessed 31 January 2016.

Sims Wyeth, Inc., 2014, 10 Reasons Eye Contact Is Everything in Public Speaking, at http://www.inc.com/sims-wyeth/10-reasons-why-eye-contact-can-change-peoples-perception-of-you.html, accessed 31 January 2016.


Drawn from T.J. Walker, Howcast.com, 2013, How to Make Eye Contact with Audience | Public Speaking, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i–CdKh_dHc, accessed 31 January 2016. Compete transcript at http://www.howcast.com/videos/505075-how-to-make-eye-contact-with-audience-public-speaking/, accessed 31 January 2016; Andrew Dlugan, 2013, Simple Secrets to Improve Your Eye Contact, at http://sixminutes.dlugan.com/eye-contact/, accessed 31January 2016.

Normed topic and synthetic course with which the concept is primarily associated

This concept is primarily associated with the core normed topic Speaking to Persuade and is included in the synthetic course outline Atlas109 Leadership and Communication Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 31 January 2016.

Image: No Sweat Public Speaking, at http://www.nosweatpublicspeaking.com/non-verbal-communication-1-eye-contact/, accessed 31 January 2016.