Three Ways To Control The Audience With Your Eyes

Great public speakers can get their audiences to do virtually anything they want them to do.

Just think of the hypnotist who gets audience members to quack like ducks. Or motivational speakers who compel audience members to walk across hot coals. Or jazz musician Bobby McFerrin, who gets rooms full of people to sing aloud simply by bouncing silently on the stage.

I recently read a terrific blog post by James Breeze, the founder of the Sydney, Australia-based technology and design firm Objective Digital. His firm, working alongside Tobii Technology, has conducted some fascinating eye tracking research.

And their work might just hold some fascinating lessons for public speakers who want to guide their audiences’ behavior through their eyes.

James did an experiment in which 106 people were shown an advertisement for diapers. The image above shows the “simple gaze path,” or the order in which people looked at information in the ad. He writes:

“The blobs are where the person has fixated on the image. You’ll notice the person starts looking in the middle of the page…and then goes straight to the baby face.”

James presented his findings in another way. “The redder the spot,” he writes, “the more time people looked at it:”

Notice how the baby was facing the camera in both images. Since we’re innately conditioned to look in people’s eyes, it’s little surprise that the 106 people spent most of their time looking at the baby’s face.

Here’s where things get interesting. In a different version of the ad, the baby faces the headline instead of the camera. Here’s what the gaze path looked like:

And below, in red, is where people spent the most time looking:

The baby’s eyes guided the reader to the text the advertiser wanted them to read. And that holds tremendous lessons for public speakers. Here are three ways you might use this information:

1. When displaying a prop during media interviews or speeches–such as a newspaper headline, a product, or a photo–look at the object, not the audience.

2. If you want people to focus on information you just put up on an easel or on a PowerPoint slide, don’t just click to the next slide. Turn around and look at it for a moment if you want people in the audience to fully take it in. (Don’t speak while facing the slide—just turn around to direct the audience’s gaze to the screen, pause for a moment, then turn around and continue speaking.)

3. You might also use this technique to take the focus off of a dominant audience member. Once that participant finishes his or her comment, you can turn your entire body away from that person and look to the opposite side of the room. Audience members who had been aiming their bodies toward the dominant audience member usually take that subtle clue and turn their bodies back to the center of the room.

The bottom line? They’ll look where you look. Use that information to your advantage.

A grateful tip of the hat to Kol Chu Birke for this story idea.

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