I like to start each new year with some posts on the basic rules of the road for public speaking.  It’s a good chance to update what we know with the latest neuroscience and to review the current state of the art.  Let’s begin with eye contact, because it’s the first rule that every speaker learns, and yet it remains a topic of misunderstanding and difficulty for many speakers.

First, let’s clear away the bad advice and folklore that contributes to the mistakes I see all the time from the stage.

In an effort to help the terrified, some coaches tell people not to look at the audience, but rather to look at a point somewhere just above their heads.  The idea is that by pretending the audience isn’t there you’ll be able to get through the terror-stricken moments of your presentation.

If that’s worked for you, great, but I don’t recommend it.  After all, the whole point in giving a presentation is to connect with the audience in front of you.  At best, looking over their heads is a desperation measure designed to prevent a meltdown.  At worst, after an entire presentation of non-eye-contact, the audience will have checked out permanently, thinking that the speaker had no interest in them.

The inverse of never looking at the audience is staring at them fixedly for long periods of time, like some psychotics and badly-trained sales people.  The belief underlying this scary alternative is, I guess, that if eye contact is good, then more is better.  Best of all then must be staring at your audience until they’re ready to flee.

No.  This option is equally untenable, because it doesn’t mimic regular conversation either, and so it makes you look like some sort of crazed stalker.

So what should you do in the way of eye contact?  Think about how a normal conversation goes.  You use the eye contact at the beginning to make sure you’ve got the other person’s attention, then you launch into that story about the drunk dog, and you start looking up, down and sideways for inspiration, recall, and simply to give your listener a break.  Then, when you’re ready to wrap up and hand the conversational baton off to your partner, you check back in with them with a clear signal of eye contact to say, “Almost done, get ready.”

Thus, real eye contact is occasional, and helps control the ebb and flow of a conversation.  What’s more, recent research published in the journal Cognition suggests that looking away happens naturally when we’re searching for a word.  If we’re looking at our conversational partner, that’s stimulating and distracting, so looking away actually helps us come up with better word choice.

Don’t assume, therefore, because of what you’ve heard, that someone who is talking and not making eye contact is lying.  Rather, they may be searching for the right word.

The listener, indeed, has a greater responsibility to maintain eye contact than does the speaker.  It shows that the listener is paying attention.

All of this translates rather well into helping speakers give a natural, conversational speech – and the audience to follow along.  The speaker should begin by making eye contact with a few individuals, then look away as he or she gets into the heart of the talk, then look back from time to time to signal breaks, or simply check that the audience is still paying attention.  If you know your material and you’re even relatively comfortable on stage, all of this eye contact management should seem pretty simple.  If you’ve got a particularly bad case of stage fright, the eye contact rhythm may be hard to get and to maintain.  But make the effort; getting a natural flow of eye contact will help you (as the speaker) relax.

The audience should pay attention, keeping eye contact pretty consistently on the speaker.

If you don’t know how long is normal to make that initial eye contact, try somewhere between three and five seconds.  Another piece of research indicates that’s about average. 

Put these simple steps together to create a normal-feeling, conversationally appropriate presentation.

And break a leg.






  1. Interesting points, and I completely agree that gazing overhead is avoidance and staring is creepy. But there is the real concern that many of my presenting clients have that direct eye contact tends to derail them. They lose their train of thought. So I show them that they can fake it a little bit: they can look at foreheads and chins. From a distance of 20 feet or more, an audience member cannot tell the difference. In a smaller gathering, like around a table, that’s a different story — you can’t fake it there. But in a ballroom, foreheads and chins are often safer.

    1. Thanks, Rick, for your comment. And the research I noted supports your clients’ concerns of losing their train of thought. Foreheads and chins has been a compromise in the acting world for two thousand years, and it’s good advice for the easily derailed. You’re right that if you’re about 20 feet away or more it’s not obvious. I’m nearsighted enough that you can fool me at about 10 feet:-) The Ancient Greeks advised the same thing for their actors. My other comment is that if you know your material well enough, you won’t get derailed.

  2. Hi Nick – Thanks for focusing on the topic of eye contact! I have learned that using a soft eye contact transforms the experience of connecting with individuals in an audience.

    Soft eye contact has been used in kriya meditation to focus consciousness internally while still having eyes open. It has also been used in martial arts to see the field while sparring with partners. 30 years ago, I started using it myself at the center of attention and with my public speaking clients to help them feel an easy connection with audience members.

    Using soft eyes has the remarkable effect of allowing you to receive the flow of attention from others as support. It seems to dissolve the sense of separation and put you in a state of connectedness. In my own experience, it allows me to experience the connection that exists between all human beings.

    My clients are mostly professionals who have fear of public speaking. When they learn to use a soft eye contact from the center of attention, they feel a new sense of safety to be who they are and it makes speaking so much easier! So, a little tweak of softening the eye focus makes a big difference in connecting with listeners and in the ability to flow speech.

    Thanks for your continuing insights on public speaking! I admire your wisdom.

    Sandra Zimmer

    1. Thanks, Sandra — sounds very Zen — to look without looking. I do that all the time, but that’s because I’m nearsighted and absent-minded:-) Seriously, a great way to think about handling nerves and eye contact, both.

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