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Does Eye Contact Really Work?



By Mark Kretschmar

There’s a problem with the way most presenters do eye contact. But first, let’s look at what’s going right.

We’ve all endured enough presentations void of eye contact. (You know you have an engineer’s attention “when they are looking at your shoes instead of at their own.”) Well, I’m glad to say that’s an exaggeration.

Getting speakers to look at the audience members’ faces is a huge step in the right direction. Eye contact is good. Always. But it can be great. A major reason eye contact is emphasized in public speaking is because without it, speakers would be looking at screens, walls, computers, floors, feet etc. But the psychological impact of eye contact is what we’re after.

What it Does in the Brain

The brain is sensitive to eye contact. So much so, that in some autistic people, eye contact can be over stimulating. Those they interact with are trained to limit it. Eye contact forms a significant part of another’s subconscious evaluation of you. The way an audience evaluates you, has an enormous impact on their evaluation of your message. Lots of academic research has made it clear that you are evaluated more positively when you make eye contact. In fact, one study by Atushi (2010) shows that with good eye contact an audience will perceive that you are smiling even if you never smile.

Eye contact increases trust, liking, and choice making. In a famous experiment with Trix cereal, when the rabbit is looking directly at the shopper, sales increased significantly (Tal et al., 2014). Your audience will more likely accept your message (buy what you’re selling) when you have eye contact with them.

Eye contact stimulates the brain to pay attention. We instinctively know that when someone is gazing at us, we are engaged in an interaction whether we are speaking or not. We are communicating nonverbally; much is being said and much is in play including our self-esteem, our defense mechanisms, and other instinctive responses.

The Current Problem with “Eye Contact”

Anyone who’s had even the slightest bit of presentation training has been told to use eye contact. Those who have heeded that wise advice usually turn into “scanners.” Scanners continually scan the eyes of the audience, looking from one side to another, rarely spending more than one or two seconds on any individual. This begins to engage the brain’s responses to eye contact and is so much better than staring at the screen, the floor, or the wall at the back of the room. But we aren’t using this powerful tool effectively until we understand the effect of eye contact duration.

Eye Contact Duration is What Matters

Multiple academic studies have made it clear that longer duration eye contact with an individual will significantly increase the audience’s perception of the speaker’s credibility, confidence, self-esteem, strength and leadership. If you want eye contact to really work for you, move beyond scanning and start connecting.

Eye-Connect Instead of Eye-Contact

What invigorates the brain and brings all the benefits of eye contact is the feeling of connection with the speaker. The audience doesn’t connect with you during a scan like they do when you really look at someone. When you’re speaking, select a person and really look at them while you’re speaking. Notice them as an individual. Notice their gender, their hair, their eyes, their expression. Appreciate the fact that they are taking the time to listen to you. Look at them in a way that says, “What I’m saying right now is really important and I want you to get it.”

How Long?

Some say you should look at someone for at least three seconds. Others recommend looking at an individual for a complete sentence. I prefer less prescriptive ideas. I don’t want you counting seconds or checking your sentence structures while you’re trying to connect. Because you are a person, just like the audience member, you’ll know when you’ve connected. When you’re confident you’ve made a connection with that person, move to another. It could be one word. I’ve noticed I have connected with someone while I’m building up to a powerful word at the end of the sentence, so I can look at someone else for the impactful last word and continue connecting with them during the silence that should always follow those climactic moments.

What About the Rest of the Audience?

When you connect with individuals, you connect with the room. As humans, we not only know how to connect, we know when others are doing it. As you connect with individuals in the room, an atmosphere of connection is created. In this atmosphere, the entire audience begins to respond in a connected way. You reap the benefits of Eye-Connection without having to connect with every individual.

Up Your Game With Eye-Connect

Be consciously aware of your eye connection next time you speak. Determine before you start that when you’re done, you will remember some individual faces. Don’t try to convince a whole room. Just convince them one at a time, moment to moment, and in the end, you’ll have a real impact on the entire audience.

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To increase your value by bringing your communication skills up to match your technical skills, contact Mark at mark@engineerspeak.com or 651-728-0352 and check out the helpful, free content on engineerspeak.com.