Article Category: Delivery Techniques

3 Eye Contact Myths… and How to Avoid Them In Your Speech


Heard these eye contact myths lately?

Making eye contact with an audience is one of the most terrifying things about presenting a speech in public. Because it’s scary and difficult, several myths about eye contact exist to help us cope with our fears. These myths swirl around meeting rooms, conference halls, Toastmasters clubs, and classrooms, and if you listen closely, you might hear presenters whispering them to one another.

Unfortunately, none of these myths help a presenter’s delivery.

In this article, you will learn why these myths don’t work, and discover how you can move toward effective eye contact instead.

Myth #1: Above the audience

What’s the myth?

When I ask my students if they have heard any eye contact tricks, the first “tip” they bring up is to look at the back of the room. Instead of meeting the eyes of the audience, the first myth suggests that you should avoid eyes altogether and instead focus on a space on the back wall… above the audience’s heads.

Why is it wrong?

When I teach my students, I look each of them in the eyes during class time. When we talk about this specific eye contact myth, I demonstrate why it does not work by shifting my gaze from directly at them to a point at the back of the room. Whether I am presenting to a classroom with 6 or 60 students, they can all see the difference. They can tell that I am not looking at anyone because I am looking over the heads of the audience members.

No matter my motivations for following the myth — whether I’m afraid or disinterested – my delivery appears aloof and distant to my audience.

What should I do instead?

Often, an unprepared speaker will look up when he or she is searching for something to say. Unprepared presenters tend to look away from an audience for a large portion of their speech. Content should be well prepared in advance so that a speaker is focusing on delivery, as opposed to the message, on speech day.

How can you feel comfortable with your content so that you can focus on your audience during your presentation? Preparation and practice will go a long way. Nancy Duarte advises us to spend 36-90 hours preparing for a one-hour presentation. Scott Schwertly advises practicing a speech at least 8 times. Significant preparation and practice before the presentation means that on speech day, we can focus on delivery and eye contact.

The key to strong eye contact is to remember that most of the time, your eyes should be focused on your audience.

Of course, you don’t have to spend your entire presentation staring into the eyes of your audience. Looking up, looking around the room, or looking away from your audience is absolutely fine. Just make sure you are meeting their eyes for most of your presentation.

Myth #2: Below the audience

What’s the myth?

You should look directly at your audience during your entire speech, because only liars avert their eyes and look around the room.

Why is it wrong?

Psychologists have determined that liars engage in more eye contact, not less.

During a presentation, most of us tend to look away from our audience because we’re afraid or nervous — not because we’re lying. If we accept the second eye contact myth, we believe looking down at our notes signals dishonesty or weakness. This is problematic because most of us need our notes to help keep our speech organized and on track. Refusing to look away from the audience can be damaging for the presenter.

What should I do instead?

Looking away from your audience once in a while during a presentation isn’t negative. You do not have to look at your audience for 100% of your presentation. Instead of forcing your eyes to remain on your audience, realize that it is okay to look down at your notes. It’s also okay to get a drink of water, to pick up a prop, to fix a technical issue, or to gather your thoughts. The key to strong eye contact is to remember that most of the time, your eyes should be focused on your audience.

Look at your audience in the eyes. It’s scary. It’s hard. Do it anyway.

It is true, though, that you do not want to write your entire speech out because you will be tempted to look down and to read from that script when presenting. Reading your speech is terrible. Instead, use an outline. Write only your main points and list them in bullet point fashion. You can also use note cards and write one main point on each card. This technique will help push you to meet the eyes of your audience but will ensure you have your content outlined just in case you need to fall back on it.

Myth #3: Wrong body part

What’s the myth?

If you’re afraid to look at your audience in the eye, look at their foreheads or at the top of their heads. This will help you avoid meeting their eyes, but they will think you’re looking at them.

Why is it wrong?

Imagine a one-on-one conversation with a co-worker. We can see and feel a difference when that person looks us in the eye versus when that person looks away – at the top of our head, down at our attire, or at our feet. People can tell when you’re looking at them and when you are not.

Looking at different body parts of your audience can be perceived as inappropriate. For example, you wouldn’t want to look at the legs or chest of an audience member. It is also confusing to your audience if you are looking at foreheads, shoulders, hands, or the space between two people.

What should I do instead?

Audiences want to feel a connection with speakers, and the only way to connect with someone is to look that person in the eye.

Eye contact is one of the most important elements of delivery. There is no “trick” to make this easy. It’s hard, and we’ve got to learn to stomach the butterflies and get over it. Look at your audience in the eyes. It’s scary. It’s hard. Do it anyway.

Instead of buying into myths or gimmicks, we must realize that delivery is difficult and cannot be achieved through shortcuts. We must also understand the basic goal of delivery during a presentation. The heart of delivery is an authentic, natural connection with an audience. If you focus on the hard work that comes with overcoming your public speaking fear and presentation anxiety, and if you put in the hours of necessary preparation and practice time, you will be able to focus on delivery — and especially on eye contact — the next time you present.

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Comments icon19 Comments

  1. Thanks for taking on these myths. The more poking at popular but untrue beliefs we can do, the better.

    The question I have is about how much control you think anyone has over where they look. Like you I know many people who have heard these tips, but rarely can anyone execute them, whether it’s bad advice or good.

    As you mentioned everyone needs to practice their material enough so their attention can be on their performance, rather than their material, but very few people do that. Which means despite what they know about “where to look” they won’t be able to do it anyway. It’s something I always put on the second level of things speakers should worry about. They can make mistakes with eye contact, and do fine. And the bigger the audience, the harder it is to do well, and the less it matters, so not much to worry about there anyway.

    I’d bet you’ve seen people who made many mistakes with eye contact, but did everything else well – what was the result? Most times the audience connects with the message anyway, provided it was a well practiced delivery, performed with genuine enthusiasm.

    I’d love to see a study of presentations done with blindfolded speakers: how much of a difference does it make to the audience if they can’t see the speakers eyes at all?

    1. Hey Scott,
      WOW! I am so honored that you took the time to read this article… I follow your work, and I enjoyed Confessions of a Public Speaker.
      My hope is that people DO work to control their eye contact. I agree with you that eye contact is a higher-level speaking skill we must learn only after we conquer presentation anxiety, audience analysis, preparing strong content, and practicing that content. However, I tend to have an optimistic view that people CAN learn and apply this skill because I see drastic changes in my students’ eye contact while they are enrolled in my course.
      For example, I once had a student who would select one classmate and only look at that person for his entire speech. It was very uncomfortable for everyone his audience. I’ve had students who only look down at their notes or who only look at me. Because my classes contain less than 50 students, poor eye contact is obvious for that smaller audience… especially because we talk about effective eye contact so much in class.
      I am always surprised by how strong a student’s eye contact can become in just 60 classroom hours with the help of three things: 1) practice, 2) consistent audience and instructor feedback, and 3) watching video of the speech. I have seen more students work hard and conquer eye contact than struggle/fail in this area.
      In terms of audience size, wouldn’t you agree that the average American speaks and presents more frequently in front of smaller audiences as opposed to crowds of hundreds or thousands? We might have a presentation for our class at school or in front of our colleagues at work. While our eye contact doesn’t have to be perfect in these settings, we should definitely strive to work on it with our audience’s needs in mind.
      Thanks again for your feedback! It made my day to hear from you.

  2. Look directly at the eyes of one member of the audience.

    Finish speaking a thought, and move on to another member.

    Don’t stare, and look for friendly faces.

    “Meeting & Greeting” the audience as they arrive makes it easier to look at them because you’ve already made a connection.

    “Eyes are the Gateway to the Soul” and they show honesty and confidence in your competence to the people you are addressing.

    1. Alex Rister says:

      Hey Fred,
      This is all such great advice. Thank you for sharing with us! I love the “friendly faces” idea. My colleague Chiara Ojeda says to pick a “smile buddy” in the crowd. Have a great week! -AR

  3. Manmohan says:

    Hi Alex, I can’t agree more with all if your points. As for me I just can’t speak if I don’t look into someone’s eyes. When speaking at my toastmasters club i pick someone on my left look into his or her eye speak a couple of lines then choose another pair of eyes on the right to focus on for about ten secs then at the center and so on. I find this helps me deliver much more confidently!
    Manmohan

    1. Alex Rister says:

      Hey Manmohan, Thanks so much for reading the article! Your experience definitely gives us some good advice on how long to look at someone. I do agree with you that eye contact leads to that connection with your audience… which leads to greater presenter confidence. It’s a win-win! -AR

  4. Ed Wheeler says:

    Good article, I think it’s good to have some of these myths addressed – looking over or under the audience is frequently noticed by the audience.

    I’ve found that what helps some speakers (myself included) is to find about 5 people in the audience that have a friendly demeanour.

    If you have people you know coming to see you speak, ask them to sit in different places in the room to get feedback from different angles.

    Once you have those 5 people through the room, casually move eye contact between them – it looks natural, and you’ll be looking at all points in the room without looking above or below the crowd.

    Most the audience will feel like you’re talking in their direction at times this way.

    1. Thank you for reading the article, Ed! I just LOVE your “5 people” suggestion, and I’m going to share that with my students. What a great idea! -AR

  5. Alex, excellent article. It reminded me of a woman I met at a networking event who told me that she never gets nervous at public speaking because she looks just above the audience’s heads. Then in the same breath said she doesn’t feel that she connects with the audience well – what do I suggest? To actually, look at the audience! The eyes are expressive and the way we feel connected to others. These myths undermine building a relationship with the people who need to hear a speaker’s message!

    1. Michelle, I’m going to share your story to my class! Such a perfect example. -AR

  6. Kent says:

    If there is no eye contact, there is no relationship build. That’s the power of eye contact. It is very important not only in giving speech, rather it is everywhere.

    1. Jeff says:

      I have taught classes over the Web and connected with lots of students and they with me. There was no eye contact at all. I once saw Tim Sanders present and he connected with me and I was too far away for any meaningful eye contact. What if an audience member is blind? Is there no way that you can connect with her?

      You can connect with an audience without making eye contact. It may not be optimum but it can certainly be done.

      I think that Scott Berkun hits the nail on the head here.

      1. Andy Brenner says:

        I make eye contact – even if the audience is large, even with audience members that are blind.
        Being prepared is definitely #1. But I can get the best delivery when I look for clues from the audience. What you observe in their eyes can help you emphasize the correct points, move on, or change your delivery to make the most of the content.
        To me speaking is more like a dance with the audience. Singing would be more or a performance – where the words are fixed.
        It would be an interesting experiment having a speaker with a blind fold. My contention is that it would affect the speaker and the audience.

  7. The eye contact (or lack of) is one of the most misunderstood aspects of deception, thus, the speaker needs to carefully plan his movements once he’s making eye contact with someone. When we’re trying to convince someone we’re telling the truth we need to focus on maintaining eye contact. As a speaker, we need to focus one eye contact to alleviate the stress of trying to plan an unnatural response to something that will happen on it’s own. Thus, we will have much more time to focus on what we should be doing. Be it planning, researching, and rehearsing our speeches.

  8. Kaiwen says:

    When I was in choir we were taught that looking slightly above people in the last row (aka myth 1) was desirable because it created the illusion of eye contact. It’s easy for me to make eye contact with a few people or everyone at a small Toastmasters club. When speaking to more people and they are farther away (say, several hundred or a few thousand) where do you look? Also, what do you do when the stage lights prevent you from seeing the audience?

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      I think this touches on some of the points raised by Scott Berkun in the first comment to this article. In larger audiences when you are physically farther away from people, it becomes significantly harder to make eye contact with any of them.

      When I’m speaking to large groups or if stage lights are being used, I just try to balance my posture and gaze so that I hit each “block” within the audience: left front, left back, right front, right back, center front, and center back. Most people can’t really see where my eyes are focused, so the body posture is really how they’ll take the cue.

      This helps convey the idea that I’m talking to the whole audience, not just a small pocket of people such as those in the front few rows off to my right.

  9. Mike L says:

    One of my pet peeves in Toastmasters evaluations: “You looked slightly off to the side, or upwards, like you were TRYING TO THINK OF WHAT TO SAY.”
    Well, duh…
    There’s nothing wrong at all with taking a second or two to ‘gather your thoughts’ and looking away for a brief interval lets you re-focus before you turn your attention back to the audience. It’s what we do naturally in conversation.
    It’s also about giving your audience a brief break from the non-stop attention.

    Also, I DO NOT recommend fixating on a friendly face for the following reason… During a recent speech I was in the audience, listening attentively and the speaker quickly latched on to me as a ‘friendly face’. However, he locked on so intently that he neglected the rest of the audience and it was making me feel uncomfortable.
    A better strategy is to train yourself right away to see unfriendly faces and not be flustered by it.

  10. Pete says:

    Well there’s a few things I wont be doing anymore.
    I know eye contact is hard when your nerves are all over the place, but it sure helps to engage your audience.

  11. Kim says:

    Public speaking is a real fear for some people. I have found that when I am looking at someone in the audience, I immediately smile as I talking – they often smile back and the connection is solidified with something real. This is good advice..thanks.

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