The clichéd advice about public speaking that everyone knows is “make eye contact.” But that’s usually where the knowledge ends and the real questions start. How long should you look at your audience? How much is too much eye contact? Who should you look at? What if you can’t see anyone – what should you do then? What else should you be thinking about?

So here goes – Eye Contact, 2016 version. What does the latest research show?

Here’s a definitive answer on the appropriate duration of eye contact. On average, a new research study finds, you should look at someone for 3.2 seconds. Longer if you appear trustworthy to that person. Longer than that, and you’ll appear either aggressive or flirtatious. Of course, if you’re in love, then look as long as you can both can stand it!

But the mere numbers don’t convey the real reason for this kind of eye contact. The whole point is to help regulate conversation. So, don’t think about eye contact as eye contact, per se, but only in the larger context of having a successful conversation with your audience.

Speaking styles have changed, and audiences today want authenticity and a sense that they’re having a conversation with the speaker. And there’s research that analyzes eye contact in those terms. It turns out that we make eye contact when we’re about to speak – to signal our intention to start speaking. Once we’re rolling, we tend to look away from our listeners. Then, when we’re just about done, we make eye contact again, in order to signal to the other person that we’re ready to hand over the conversational baton.

If you’re having a conversation with your audience, then, don’t be afraid to look away from the audience members when you’re speaking, because that’s part of the normal conversational flow.

Here’s how you do it. Make brief eye contact with an individual in the audience, to signal your intention to speak. Get your speech rolling, and take turns looking around the audience in 30-second to one-minute mini-conversations. In other words, you’ll look at person A (say, in the front left audience) for 3.2 seconds, then look away as you speak, coming back to that person regularly during the 30 seconds or minute or so that you stay focused on him or her. Then move on to person B, right rear of audience, and repeat. Then person C, left rear. Then person D, right front. And so on. The idea is to give the audience the impression of a series of conversations with people scattered around the audience in order to make the entire audience feel included.

And what do you do if you can’t see anyone, because the lights are too bright? I always suggest politely asking the tech people to turn the house lights up. Most of them turn the house lights down out of habit, since they come out of the theatre world typically. And PowerPoint used to require a dark house in order to project on the screen. Now, most screens are backlit, so there’s not any real need for theatrical lighting.

Get the lights up as a first option. If for some reason you don’t have any luck with that, then simply look into the lights (I know, it hurts – sorry) at where the audience is sitting. The audience will appreciate the effort, at least, even if it doesn’t feel as much like a conversation to them.

Keep these rules in mind and you’ll connect with your audience every time.

9 Comments

  1. Thanks Nick
    The lights can be tricky as you say. It’s worth talking to the organisers and the tech people before the day (if you can) and reminding them on the day about you wanting to make more connection with the audience. And I have seen speakers ask for the lighting to change as they arrive on stage but it’s a bit of a gamble if it can’t be done.

  2. Eye contact and keeping focus.

    In a coaching session with Paul Cahill of Cahill Associates, he talked about eye contact being important to help the speaker stay focused. There are so many distractions for a speaker and, too often, speakers eyes sweep the room instead of focusing on one person at a time. What he said was that your brain gets too much information from sweeping the room. It tries to process what it sees and, too often, the speaker loses concentration. I haven’t looked for any research to back this up, but it’s made a big difference for me.

    Mike Rado
    Senior Manager, Market Development Services
    Deloitte Services, LP

    1. Thanks, Michael — I think that information loads vary considerably from person to person, so this kind of generalization is very suspect. It might apply to a particular person, but from a neuroscience point of view, it’s nonsense.

  3. That’s really helpful. There’s research by Dr Stephen Porges that this sort of eye contact activates what he calls the Social Engagement System, which calms down both the speaker and the person on the receiving end of the eye contact. (Just google him if you’re interested – he’s an interesting guy).

    In my experience as a coach the length of time that is optimal varies with the particular audience and what you’re talking about, but in fact 3 seconds as an average time is a really good starting point.

    1. Thanks, Daniel — I appreciate the comment and the reference. As you note, these kind of rules are only meant as a starting point. Your mileage may (indeed, should) vary.

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