3 eye contact myths to disregard in your next talk

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Making eye contact with audience members is one of the most terrifying things about presenting a speech in public.

Because it’s scary and difficult, several myths about eye contact exist to help us cope with our fears. These myths swirl around meeting rooms, conference halls, Toastmasters clubs, and classrooms, and if you listen closely, you might hear presenters whispering them to one another.

Unfortunately, none of these myths will help a presenter’s delivery.

In this article, you will learn why these myths don’t work, and you’ll discover how you can move toward effective eye contact instead.

Myth 1: Looking above the audience

What’s the myth?

When I ask my students if they have heard any eye-contact tricks, the first “tip” they bring up is to look at the back of the room. Instead of meeting the eyes of the audience, the first myth suggests that you should avoid eyes altogether and instead focus on a space on the back wall—above the audience’s heads.

Why is it wrong?

When I teach my students, I look each of them in the eyes during class time. When we talk about this specific myth, I demonstrate why it does not work by shifting my gaze from directly at them to a point at the back of the room. Whether I am presenting to a classroom with six or 60 students, they can all see the difference. They can tell that I am not looking at anyone because I am looking over the heads of the audience members.

No matter my motivations for following the myth—whether I’m afraid or disinterested—my delivery appears aloof and distant to my audience.

What should I do instead?

Often, an unprepared speaker will look up when he or she is searching for something to say. Unprepared presenters tend to look away from an audience for a large portion of their speech. Content should be well prepared in advance so that a speaker is focusing on delivery, as opposed to the message, on speech day.

How can you feel comfortable with your content so that you can focus on your audience during your presentation? Preparation and practice will go a long way. Nancy Duarte advises us to spend 36 to 90 hours preparing for a one-hour presentation. Scott Schwertly advises practicing a speech at least eight times. Significant preparation and practice before the presentation means that on speech day, we can focus on delivery and eye contact.

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Of course, you don’t have to spend your entire presentation staring into the eyes of your audience. Looking up, looking around the room, or looking away from your audience is absolutely fine. Just make sure you are meeting their eyes for most of your presentation.

Myth 2: Looking below the audience

What’s the myth?

You should look directly at your audience during your entire speech, because only liars avert their eyes and look around the room.

Why is it wrong?

Psychologists have determined that liars engage in more eye contact, not less.

During a presentation, most of us tend to look away from our audience because we’re afraid or nervous—not because we’re lying. If we accept the second myth, we believe looking down at our notes signals dishonesty or weakness. This is problematic because most of us need our notes to help keep our speech organized and on track. Refusing to look away from the audience can be damaging for the presenter.

What should I do instead?

Looking away from your audience once in a while during a presentation isn’t negative. You do not have to look at your audience for 100 percent of your presentation. Instead of forcing your eyes to remain on your audience, realize that it is OK to look down at your notes. It’s also OK to get a drink of water, to pick up a prop, to fix a technical issue, or to gather your thoughts. The key to strong eye contact is to remember that most of the time, your eyes should be focused on your audience.

It is true, though, that you do not want to write your entire speech out because you will be tempted to look down and to read from that script when presenting. Reading your speech is terrible. Instead, use an outline. Write only your main points and list them in bullet point fashion. You can also use note cards and write one main point on each card. This technique will help push you to meet the eyes of your audience but will ensure you have your content outlined just in case you need to fall back on it.

Myth 3: Focusing on the wrong body part

What’s the myth?

If you’re afraid to look at your audience in the eye, look at their foreheads or at the top of their heads. This will help you avoid meeting their eyes, but they will think you’re looking at them.

Why is it wrong?

Imagine a one-on-one conversation with a co-worker. We can see and feel a difference when that person looks us in the eye versus when that person looks away—at the top of our head, down at our attire, or at our feet. People can tell when you’re looking at them and when you are not.

Looking at different body parts of your audience can be perceived as inappropriate. For example, you wouldn’t want to look at the legs or chest of an audience member. It is also confusing to your audience if you are looking at foreheads, shoulders, hands, or the space between two people.

What should I do instead?

Audiences want to feel a connection with speakers, and the only way to connect with someone is to look that person in the eye.

Eye contact is one of the most important elements of delivery. There is no “trick” to make this easy. It’s hard, and we’ve got to learn to stomach the butterflies and get over it.

Look at your audience in the eyes. It’s scary. It’s hard.

Do it anyway.

Instead of buying into myths or gimmicks, we must realize that delivery is difficult and cannot be achieved through shortcuts. We must also understand the basic goal of delivery during a presentation. The heart of delivery is an authentic, natural connection with an audience. If you focus on the hard work that comes with overcoming your public speaking fear and presentation anxiety, and if you put in the hours of necessary preparation and practice time, you will be able to focus on delivery-and especially on eye contact-the next time you present.

Alex Rister is author of Creating Communication, a blog about effective communication and presentation practices. She teaches Professional Communication and Presentation to business students at Full Sail University. A version of this article first appeared on Six Minutes. 

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