New Eye Contact Research: Is 3.2 Seconds The Magic Number?

If you’ve ever been unsure about how long to maintain eye contact with members of your audience, you can be forgiven. As I’ve documented before, the advice about how long you should lock your gaze with a single audience member is all over the map. Here are a few of the pieces of advice you’ll find:

In You Are The Message, Roger Ailes writes: “As you move from small group to small group—or from individual to individual—in the audience, linger for a few seconds.”
On his website “Six Minutes,” public speaking blogger Andrew Dlugan recommends that speakers “Sustain eye contact with someone for a few seconds, then move on.”
In 100 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People, Susan Weinschenk gets slightly more specific: “Spend 2 to 3 seconds looking at one person, then move to another person.”
In Presentation Skills 201, William R. Steele agrees: “Look at someone just long enough that you both feel the connection (two or three seconds) and then move on.

Brown eyes

Presentations That Persuade and Motivate, published by the Harvard Business Press, recommends doubling that time: “Make eye contact for five or six seconds with people in the front, left and right, and the back.”
In Speak With Confidence, Dianna Booher dispenses with that approach, advising speakers to focus not on seconds, but on sentences: “Delivering one or two sentences to each person establishes a bond of intimacy with individual listeners.”
Jerry Weissman’s The Power Presenter has similar advice, but recommends less time-per-person: “Deliver one phrase to that person. Pause. Move to another person and deliver one phrase to that person.”

Most of those pieces of advice, even with their differences, are variations on the same theme. And new research appears to verify the instincts of many of the writers cited above. The following excerpt comes from the January 2016 issue of Scientific American:

“In research presented in May 2015 at the Vision Sciences Society conference, psychologist Alan Johnston and his colleagues at University College London collected information from more than 400 volunteers about their personalities. Then the subjects indicated their comfort level while watching video clips of actors who appeared to be looking directly at them for varying lengths of time.
Johnston and his colleagues found that, on average, the subjects liked the actors to make eye contact with them for 3.2 seconds.”

Speaker Looking At Papers iStockPhoto
Watching a video isn’t the same as being looked at during a live presentation by the person in front of a room. In a live format, the entire audience can observe the speaker’s eyes on you, making you even more self-conscious than if a single person was looking at you through a screen—which, in any case, we’ve become accustomed to through newscasts and many other video formats.
Therefore, I remain skeptical of any single study—and would hesitate to offer prescriptive advice based upon it. My advice is usually pretty straightforward: if you’re speaking, you should be making eye contact with someone, not reflexively glancing at your notes or the screen. Most speakers usually strike a reasonable balance of how much time to gaze at one person before moving on.
If I seem somewhat dismissive of the specific recommendations above, it’s because I’ve seen the impact on speakers who try to employ them. Presenters focused on eye contact rules—Look at that man for 3, 2, 1, now shift to that woman for 3, 2, 1—use too much of their cognitive load on eye contact at the expense of other critical areas, such as the amount of energy they convey.
Before your next talk, set up a video camera or ask one of your colleagues to observe your eye contact. When watching yourself back or receiving feedback, the key questions to ask are whether: your eyes were on the page or the screen too much of the time; your eyes were darting so much as to not make meaningful connections; or you stared at individuals so long as to make them uncomfortable.
If you’re on the right side of those questions, you can probably put your focus elsewhere.
My new book, 101 Ways to Open a Speech, is now available at Amazon. You can read a free preview below.