Eyes Engage Speaker and Audience

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Tom Pfeifer's Blog

Oct. 25, 2018

Once a speaker has an audience engaged

(see my blog post “Begin with a Bang”), you

must keep them engaged. One of the

primary ways to do that is through eye

contact. There’s a psychological basis for

that. Your eyes, after all, are the windows

to your soul. And, you want your soul to be

believable, don’t you?

“We’re more likely to believe statements

made by a person who looks us in the eye,”

Christian Jarrett, editor of The British

Psychological Society’s Research Digest,

noted in a 2016 article. Eye contact has

other benefits too.

“Eye contact can also improve learning in

general,” Katherine Schreiber and Heather

Hausenblas, PhD, wrote in Psychology

Today. “A classic 1980 study by James P.

Otteson and colleagues found that young

students whose teachers made eye contact

with them during lectures had improved

recall of verbal material after the class.”

Furthermore, Schreiber and Hausenblas note, “Research has shown that most people are comfortable with approximately 3.2 seconds of eye contact from a stranger—but more if that stranger seems trustworthy, and even more if that stranger later becomes a friend.”

Jarrett cited more extensive research: “To try to identity the optimum length of unbroken eye contact to make, psychologists recruited participants at London's Science Museum and asked them to rate how comfortable they found different lengths of eye contact made by faces shown in video clips, ranging from between 100ms (a tenth of a second) to 10,300ms (just over 10 seconds). On average, the participants were most comfortable with eye contact that lasted just over three seconds.”

How in the world do you look at each audience member for 3.2 seconds, you might ask. Joseph Guarino, owner of the Institute of Public Speaking, has an answer.

“As we do with all other non-verbal communication, it is important to pay attention to all audience members. The general rule is that all audience members should think you are speaking directly to them. In groups we can divide our audience into different zones and deliver a complete thought, idea, or concept per zone per eye contact connection,” Guarino wrote in an undated blog post.

In other words, if you look at one person in a zone, all the others in the zone will think you also are making eye contact with them. Every three seconds or so, or with each idea or concept, shift your eye contact to a different zone. Every effective speaker carries on a conversation with his or her audience, and, asJodi Schulz, a Michigan State University Extension educator, noted, “Eye contact during a conversation is vital.”

“It shows attentiveness and interest in what is being said,” she wrote. “Eye contact is similar to a conversation; it goes back and forth between those individuals who are engaged in a discussion, dialogue, or chat. But remember, just as maintaining eye contact is important, be sure not to stare! ... Staring can create a feeling of uneasiness for both the person talking and the person listening. It’s hard to find that balance of having enough eye contact, but not too much."

Luckily, we have the key to just enough. Practice three-second zone eye contact to keep your audiences engaged and learning, and to keep the conversation going.


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Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They’ll APPLAUD! Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.​​