Eye contact is a key body language skill. To dramatically improve your eye contact, use this quick and easy public speaking technique!
We've all heard that eye contact is essential for successful public speaking. And it's absolutely true! Looking forthrightly at someone not only builds trust. It's also a key skill of effective body language, which is, of course, important in how your persuade people nonverbally.
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Sometimes, however, looking audience members in the eye isn't easy. That's especially true when you're nervous and self-conscious about your speaking. It's hard to stay focused and present when thoughts about your own lack of skills hijack your thinking.
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I recently coached a client who had considerable trouble looking listeners in the eye. In fact, it was the first issue he brought up in our initial conversation. And sure enough, I saw it in action immediately when we started working together.
For instance, even though we were sitting in armchairs no more than 4 feet apart, he avoided looking at me probably 80% of the time. As you can imagine, this reduced both his friendliness (in my mind, as it would in any listener's) and his credibility. Can't you imagine asking yourself if someone is avoiding eye contact, "Why won't this person look me in the eye?"
How Important is Trust in Public Speaking?
My client knew this was a problem both in presentations and interpersonal communication, but he had no idea how to overcome his shyness. And that, in fact, turned out to be an important clue for me.
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He had mentioned previously that he was an introvert. And that character trait can be related to weak eye contact. Introverts not only frequently want to build a beautiful structure when speaking in public. They'd also rather not deal with the uncertainties that presenting in front of a group of strangers can bring. Of course, in the rough-and-tumble of public speaking and Q & A, we seldom have the luxury of creating an ideal presentation and presenting it in perfect conditions.
I gave my client two reasons why strong eye contact is critical to speaking success, regardless of whether a speaker is introverted, extroverted, or somewhere in between. Here they are:
- People seldom trust speakers who don't look them in the eye. From children with crumbs on their lap who deny raiding the cookie jar, to car salesmen, to lovers swearing their devotion, eye contact is visual reinforcement that what we're being told is trustworthy and true.
- Audiences are easier to get a response from than the rear wall. Speakers sometime defend their lack of eye contact by saying, “But if I look anyone in the eye, I’ll forget what I’m saying!” At this point I usually respond: “Which do you think is going to give you something back, the ceiling or the person you’re talking to?”
Your listeners should give you energy—not suck it out of you. Speaking to an audience that cares about the topic at hand should be a delightful activity. That includes watching their responses, and responding to that in turn. People not only expect you to look at them when you talk. They’ll trust you more if you do; and perhaps won't trust you at all if you don't.
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An Exercise to Improve Your Eye Contact
Here's an exercise I used with my client to strengthen his weak eye contact. It was also helpful in weaning him away from his tendency to be more comfortable with his content than with the people he was talking to:
I prepared 20 impromptu speech topics, which I folded and placed in an 8 x 10 envelope. My client had to reach in, choose a topic, then look up at me and speak about it for 2-3 minutes. Understand, please, that I gave him no time to prepare. No nicely wrapped speech package possible here! We did this four times in succession without a break.
I'd intentionally chosen topics that he didn't have any expertise in; and in fact, none had a right or wrong answer. They were general topics and were more concerned with his opinion than his knowledge. They were along the lines of, "What is America's greatest challenge in the 21st century?" or "Tell me about a person who positively changed your life."
The result? I would say that for 90% of the time, he looked directly at me with rock-solid eye contact!
The reason, you see, is that he couldn’t “go away” somewhere mentally and marshal relevant data on the subject. His professional experience gave him no special knowledge on these topics. Instead, he had to speak while accessing his own thoughts and experiences, since he couldn't find the information he needed anywhere else in the room.
Since there was nowhere else for him to turn, he had to look his listener in the eye, even if he wasn’t sure what he was about to say. His job now became to reach his audience through what he was saying, not fashion the perfect answer.
This article was first published in 2016. It is updated here.
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