Public Speaking Body Language Part Three: Eye Contact

This is the third article in an eight-part series covering the most important elements of body language for public speaking. Click here to read the entire series.

In everyday life, we don’t maintain unbroken eye contact when we speak with other people. According to The Definitive Book of Body Language, Westerners maintain eye contact just 40 – 60 percent of the time while speaking.

But speakers who maintain eye contact with audiences only about half the time will not be nearly as effective as ones who make consistent eye contact throughout their talks. I know that sounds obvious, but I regularly see speakers looking at their PowerPoint slides. Or their notes. Or their prepared texts, from which they rarely look up.

I’ve read a lot of conflicting advice through the years about the best practices for maintaining eye contact with an audience. Some coaches recommend making an entire point (a paragraph’s worth or so) while looking at one person, while others advise locking eyes with an individual member of the audience for two seconds (or three seconds, or five seconds).

I agree with their goal of making a genuine connection with a member of the audience before moving on to the next person, but I’ve generally found that the type of guidance they offer is too prescriptive for most speakers. When I’ve asked speakers to look at somebody new every 2-5 seconds, for example, most of them got lost in their heads, counting the number of seconds before they’re supposed to switch and look at somebody new.

Instead, I recommend this simple rule: If you’re talking, you should be looking into somebody’s eyes.

Sure, it’s a good idea to take in the full room on occasion, but most of your “talk time” should be conducted while you’re making eye contact with someone specific.

To help ensure that you’re making eye contact with different people in the room and people seated in different parts of the room, divide the room into sections before you begin. When you switch eye contact from one person to another, look at a person seated in a different section. Depending on the size of your audience, here’s how to divide the room:

  1. Large Auditoriums: If you’re speaking in an auditorium with two aisles (seats on the left, in the center, and on the right), divide the room into six parts (left forward, left back, center forward, center back, and right forward, right back).
  2. Smaller Auditoriums or Keynote Speeches: If you’re speaking to a room with only one center aisle (seats on the left and right), divide the room into four parts.
  3. Conference Rooms or Smaller Audiences: If you’re speaking to a smaller group, say 50 people or fewer, divide the room into either two sections (right and left) or three (right, left, and center).

If you’re speaking in a large auditorium, for example, begin with someone in the back left, move to someone in the center forward, then move on to someone in the right forward, etc. Don’t make your eye movements predictable – you shouldn’t look like a garden sprinkler – but make sure you look toward each group regularly throughout your talk.

Finally, if you need to look down at your notes (which is both fine and necessary), stop talking while you look down. When you complete your first point, pause and confidently look down to remember your second point. Then, look back up and deliver it while maintaining eye contact with your audience. When you exhaust that point, stop talking, calmly look down, find the next point, and then deliver that one while maintaining full eye contact.

Click here to read the entire series, which covers energy, tone, eye contact, gestures, posture, where to stand, how to interact with PowerPoint, and voice.

My new book, 101 Ways to Open a Speech, is now available at Amazon. You can read more about the book here