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Dispelling the myths about eye contact when communicating

Eye contact when public speakingGood communicators know how to maintain eye contact and use it when speaking to anyone they meet. It’s not a trick or technique, it’s a powerful tool.

The moment a speaker makes eye contact with an audience member, the communication is no longer about what the speaker is saying but about how it’s received, and the exchange of giving and receiving. Eye contact forces the speaker out of the ‘canned’ speech; he must take in what the audience member is sending back – interest, enthusiasm, boredom, confusion. In a way, it determines what the speaker will say next, and how he will say it.

Why then, if it is so powerful, isn’t the world of public speaking brimming with commanding speakers who consistently deliver great eye contact? There are a number of myths about the use of eye contact, which are part of the inner dialogue of many speakers that prevents them using such a powerful tool.

Myth #1:

Some people don’t like to receive eye contact. It frightens them and they feel put on the spot. This is more about the speaker’s fear than that of the audience member. An audience member wants to be drawn in and be engaged, and offering eye contact is one of the most powerful ways to do it. The intent behind the eye contact needs to be consistent and clear: ‘I want to connect with you and for you to understand why our topic is important.’

Myth #2:

If you’re nervous at the beginning of a presentation, don’t look at the audience but look slightly above their heads! The blank wall at the back of the room isn’t your friend; it will keep you talking to a void and cause your anxiety to increase because you’ll gradually create a speech that isn’t going anywhere. Find a friendly face in the crowd, lock eyes with the person, receive the eye contact and the anxiety will start to fade.

Myth #3:

The best way to make eye contact is to consistently scan the room. This is what was taught 15-20 years ago and now only serves to show your age! Some scanning is desirable, but the fear is that the eyes will be tempted to race around the room as if the speaker were on speed. It’s better to let the eyes settle on one person for the duration of a sentence or a thought, then move on to another person. Connect, move on, connect, move on.

Myth #4:

If I don’t scan, I won’t be able to give everyone the impression that I’m including them. By looking at one person intently that individual will know that you are making direct eye contact with him. People sitting nearby will also feel like they’re being spoken to. Sustained personal eye contact is the best way of addressing and engaging an entire cluster in your audience.

Myth #5:

I can’t possibly hold eye contact all the time. I have to look away when I don’t know what to say. The natural instinct is to look away when faced with a sudden loss of words because speakers feel vulnerable when this happens. It’s a challenge to connect with an audience member and at the same time create the next word, sentence, or line of thought, but the moment the speaker looks away—to the floor, the ceiling, wherever—that power is lost, and so is the audience. It’s important to stay connected to a member of the audience even when the next sentence hasn’t yet materialised.

Myth #6:

In some cultures, eye contact is considered rude and offensive. I don’t want to offend anyone with my eye contact. It’s true that in some cultures it’s impolite to stare at people directly, and a speaker should temper the frequency and intensity of their eye contact in such a situation. While it’s important to be sensitive to the different cultural signals a speaker encounters, overwhelmingly in business scenarios the communication standard is uniform. Strong eye contact signals ‘I care about you.’ Violating this will, in the end, be interpreted as rude behaviour—not the other way around.

Myth #7:

It’s impossible to give eye contact in a darkened room, when I cannot see the audience. Some speakers prefer a darkened room because it allows them to deliver a speech as planned, without the distraction of having to respond to the audience’s body language. It’s the speaker’s responsibility to create the best possible conditions to connect with his audience. A dark room deprives him of that opportunity. In fact it sends a strong indirect message, ‘Take a nap, because I’m not very interested in seeing you anyway’.

From Power Speaking by Achim Nowak