Look at me when talking! E=Eye Contact in d.E.l.i.v.e.r.y.

I look forward to hearing how this content helped you. Feel free to reach out to me with your ideas or accessing my public speaking training.  The next article is the R in D.E.L.I.V.E.R.Y., the 7th part of the series. 

During 35 years of teaching public speaking college classes, I developed 8-quickly applied tips using the acronym D.E.L.I.V.E.R.Y. to improve public speaking skills.  Previous articles covered D= Distractions and E=Extemporaneous, L=Look good, I=vocal Interferences, V=Voice, and now E for eye contact / LOOK AT ME!

Eye contact is THE number one nonverbal that communicates strong messages, both positive impressions and 180* polar opposite negative ones if performed incorrectly. On stage, there are NO good messages that come from making poor eye contact.  Sharing insights gained over 35-years teaching public speaking, this article helps you avoid public speaking mistakes with this significant message-making non-verbal.

Eye Contact messages?  Admonitions “look at me when I’m talking to you” relates to public speaking in that there are NO good messages when someone does NOT look at their audience!  Messages provided by eye contact are:

  • Respect:  Making eye contact with your audience shows respect and thanks them for being in your audience.  The most common negative impression is disrespect if you fail to look a person.
  • Trustworthiness.  Truthfulness a universally perceived outcome of direct eye contact. When someone looks at us confidently, we conclude they are telling their truth. Theoretically we know that someone can look us in the eye and lie, but this is not what we think about when another confidently looks at us when presenting. Eye contact communicates both confidence and truthfulness.
  • Authentic connection with the audience: How do you demonstrate you care about the audience? Eye contact is the first step towards making a connection.  The audience is there to become a PART OF THE SPEECH, not a recipient of a monologue.  An authentic presentation occurs real-time and adjusts with audience interaction. A speaker cannot achieve that without looking directly at their audience.
  • Attention.  Failure to look at the audience communicates you are taking AT vs. TO them.
  • Confidence.  Someone unable to look at others when they are speaking doesn’t convey confidence.  It may be the speaker is shy, scared or unsure, but these are not confident messages. Even if you feel these things, you can hide it.  Direct eye contact communicates that you are confident of yourself and your information.
  • Credibility.  Are you THE expert?  If you are tied to notes or otherwise unable to directly look at the audience, it will contradict that you know your content.  Speakers tied to notes do not appear to be knowledgeable about their own information!

Eye Contact Errors.  Ironically the audience can SEE you NOT making good eye contact!!!!  I’ve categorized the various eye contact errors to avoid :

  1. Bobble-head.  Like the caricature “bobble-head dolls” whose stationary bodies hosts a constantly bouncing head, unfortunately some speakers similarly bounce their heads up and down and only occasionally glance at the audience.  This may be the result of too many notes, discussed later.
  • Look up!  Many may remember their high-school speaking class teacher who taught, at the very least, to LOOK UP.  These teachers thought an upright head communicated confidence; however, you are not making sincere contact with the audience.  This advice contains these errors:
  1. Look at a point-on-the-wall, such as the clock or back wall.
  2. Looking over the audience’s heads yet spanning around the room so that you appear to be looking up.
  3. Pick a friendly person to look at throughout. The audience knows that you are looking at that person.  Further, that person will usually become uncomfortable and may begin to squirm.
  4. One-sided.  I have seen individuals who focus on just one side of their room.  This can occur when a speaker stands to one side of their visual aide and never moves to the other side of the room.  IF you look at only one part of the audience, the other part of the audience feels the neglect.
  5. Looking at floor or ceiling.

Each of these fails to make real eye contact and the audience SEES you are not seeing them!

  • Notes.  Contributors to poor eye contact include nervousness and notes.  An important step toward good eye contact is creating stage notes (I call them Key Notes and have a separate article on this) which allow eye contact. Furthermore I’ve seem speakers who otherwise know their content use their notes to prevent eye-contact.

I teach that rehearsing before people during the practice so that eye contact can also be practiced. One must become comfortable looking DIRECTLY at people while speaking in order to present their best non-verbal message.

  • Looking at visual aids.  Sometimes speakers present to the visual aide and face away from the audience.  I teach students to embed notes into the visual aide so they do not need to read the content to the audience.   For a video training on this, see www.SageForwardTraining.com.
  • Looking away too quickly. Good eye contact holds each individual’s eyes for a few brief seconds.

GOOD eye contact includes these factors:

  • Sincerely meet as many individual eyes as possible to make a real connection.
  • Holds each person’s eyes for a couple seconds before moving to the next person.
  • Direct, without flinching or looking away after making eye contact.
  • Note use is minimized to allow maximum eye contact.
  • Even coverage throughout the entire audience.  In a large room (such as a stadium, gym, theatre), I suggest separating the audience into imaginary sections.  Move around the room looking in the direction of the sections, making contact with individuals within these sections so each area feels you are attending to them.
  • Easy Pace.  Everything in your public speaking effort should be controlled and slow. Often nervousness causes speakers to move too quickly.  Avoid movements that are jerky, or bounce side to side of the room or quickly up and down.  Instead slowly pace your head movement through the audience, and then imperceptibly move back.
  • Accompanying non-verbals may include subtle facials.  One might smile or imperceptibly nod.  The recipient might respond with a smile or nod, confirming you’ve made an individual connection.

CONCLUSION.  Eye contact is the number one non-verbal skill conveying significant messages in public speaking.  A public speaker must become comfortable looking DIRECTLY at people while speaking in order to present the best non-verbal message.  Eye contact is the best way to make an authentic connection with your audience and convey expertise and confidence.  However, if done incorrectly, eye contact has significant potential for negative messages that need to be controlled.

I look forward to hearing how this content helped you. Feel free to reach out to me with your ideas or accessing my public speaking training.  The next article is the R in D.E.L.I.V.E.R.Y., the 7th part of the series.  Michelle Moore Brady is a trainer seeking a new full-time role.  Several video trainings are available at www.SageForwardTraining.com or MichelleMooreBrady.com or email MBrady@SageForward.com.

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