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'Look me in the eye when you say that' - the importance of eye contact

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When the UK hosted its first ever 'Presidential style' televised debate between the leaders of the three main political parties, virtually everyone agreed that the 'winner' was Nick Clegg (for non-Brits, he's the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the usually semi-ignored 'third' party).

Why? Where his answers or policies better? No - the main reason was that his eye contact was better. Gordon Brown's eye contact was as poor as it usually is, with lots of looking down at his notes, and David Cameron made the mistake of establishing eye contact with the studio audience (sack whoever gave you that advice). But the most important audience was the people watching TV at home and Clegg concentrated on them instead. The result? A runaway victory in which he was perceived as the clear leader.

So why is eye contact so vitally important, and how can you maintain it if you're using notes or cue cards?

One reason it's so important is that we humans are the only primates with white sclera. Most have uniformly brown or dark-coloured sclera, making it more difficult to determine the direction they're looking from their eyes alone.

Another subtle aid that helps us determine where another person is looking is the contrast in color between our facial skin, sclera and irises. Most apes have low contrast between their eyes and facial skin. Our eyes are also more horizontally elongated and disproportionately large for our body size compared to most apes. Gorillas, for example, have massive bodies but relatively small eyes.

Ape eyes
Differences between gorilla, chimpanzee and human eyes

These evolutionary differences occurred in order to facilitate communication, so we could tell where others were looking.  Apes have no sclera, so their prey doesn’t know if it has been spotted.

So take advantage of this evolutionary fact and look at the audience - this is so important it cannot be overstressed - not at the walls or the floor or the ceiling, or beyond your audience at some distant place over their heads, or even at one person, as some books suggest.

People tend to distrust others who avoid eye contact. They think they have something to hide. Think about it: when you watch public speakers, do you like to see them looking above the audience or constantly down at their notes? Likewise, are you comfortable if they stare only at you during their speech? How about when they just look at the first few rows and avoid those at the back?

Don’t limit your focus to just a couple of people - or even worse, to just one person (who may wonder why you're staring at him or her). Instead of establishing rapport, it could just have the opposite effect of intimidating the poor soul who's just become the sole object of your attention.

When you're speaking to a small group, focus on one person at a time. Finish an entire thought or point, and then move your eyes to someone else at a natural breakpoint. This will typically take about three to five seconds. Once you've focused on another person, continue speaking, but remember to move randomly around the room, and not in some kind of linear or row-by-row fashion.

With a large group, start off with one person at the back of the room, and hold your focus for a little longer than normal. The effect will be that several people at the back will all think you are looking at them.

Personally, I always ask for the lights to be turned up at large conferences. I hate not being able to see my audience. Asking for that also sends out a strong impression of confidence, because most people would far rather hide in the anonymity of darkness.
If you really can’t speak without notes, they should be typed so that they are easy to read.

  • Double-space the lines; it will make it easier to read.
  • Only use the top two-thirds of each page. That way you won’t have drop your eyes right down to the bottom – a swift downwards glance will be all that is required.
  • Make sure each page ends with the end of a sentence. You don’t want to be halfway through one when you have to turn a page.
  • Don't staple the pages together. If you’re only using the top two-thirds of the pages and it is a lengthy talk or presentation, there may be a lot of pages. If you turn each page over as you finish it, the audience will notice you doing this every thirty seconds or so and it will become a distraction. Simply slide each page over to the left as you finish it, so that your completed speech ends up reversed, i.e. with the first page on the bottom of the pile and the last on the top. BUT - make sure the pages are numbered. If you drop an unstapled stack of pages and they aren't, you'll be in trouble.
  • If you are worried about refinding your place when you look at the audience, you’ll end up giving them give them short, sharp glances. If you have to, keep one of your index fingers at the appropriate place in the margin.

The only time you should break eye contact is when you want the audience’s attention to be on something else, such as one of your slides.

Salespeople know that when doing a one-to-one desktop presentation, a good technique is to use their pen to guide the customer’s gaze. After using the pen to point something out in the company literature, they will then raise the pen so that it is between their two faces, ‘forcing’ the customer to look at (and therefore listen to) them. This reinforces their sales message because the customer takes in the relevant information via their eyes and their ears.

The equivalent when speaking is to turn ninety degrees (not one hundred and eighty – never show the audience your back) and gesture with an arm sweep at the slide you want them to look at. This has the effect of drawing their attention from you and on to the screen. If you simply talk about the data without doing this, many people won’t look at the screen, and the information has far less chance of sinking in.

Some so-called ‘experts’ will advise you not to do this because you should never turn away from your audience, but they are wrong. Research has shown that audience retention of purely verbal presentations or speeches is only about 10%. The retention rate for a combined visual and verbal presentation is about 50%, i.e. a 400% increase! So you want them to look at the data. What you don’t want is for the slides to take over the presentation. They are there to support you, not the other way around.

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