Public speaking is a full (eye) contact activity

I apologize, Mr. Wilson. I didn’t deserve that good mark you gave me for eye contact during my first public speaking assignment. I cheated.

As an extremely shy eighth-grader, I could barely make eye contact with my classmates in the hallway, so the thought of a room full of them staring at me was almost unbearable. I made near-eye contact instead. I looked at temples, noses and other features—anything but their eyes—as I recited the material that I had memorized.

At the time I sensed that something was missing, but I didn’t realize until later what it was: a connection with my audience.

Now I know that by making eye contact I will become calmer, not more nervous. I speak with greater confidence, because I know that audience members are listening to me and want to hear what I say.

By watching great speakers over the years I’ve also learned to never speak to a room full of strangers. If I don’t already know some people who will be in the audience, I arrive early and get to know a few.

So if the thought of facing an audience makes you feel like a shy teenager, I have these words of advice: Don’t cheat yourself.

How do you master eye contact during your speeches?


4 responses to “Public speaking is a full (eye) contact activity

  1. They say great minds think alike! I agree completely, and posted this post only a couple of days ago:

    At least you were attempting to appear to make contact! My students tend to just look at the ceiling or the floor if they are avoiding eye contact. A couple this week, though, confessed to doing the forehead thing when the feedback from audience members said something like, “It was like you were looking at us but weren’t really seeing us.” The audience can often tell you’re not making the connection, and the loss of impact can be felt.

  2. Thanks for sharing your post, Donn. I love how you describe the audience and your advice for “monster slaying.”

    They also say “Some things never change,” and unfortunately that appears to be true of students’ failing to make eye contact. The experience I wrote about happened before your students were born!

    I am happy, though, that the Internet is making a small world smaller–I live near Knoxville too. It’s nice to meet you!

  3. Hi Amy,

    My practice is “one thought per pair of eyes.” It’s the difference between making eye contact vs. truly connecting with the audience. I think of “contact” as touching someone’s hand, with “connection” being shaking someone’s hand — being connected. I stop and connect with one person, engaging him/her with my thought or concept, then I move on to someone else for the next thought.

    But this part is KEY: I only “connect” with people who are giving me positive vibes back, because then my body language is saying to the entire audience “I’m glad you’re getting this material”, and they subconsciously feel more connected to my message.

    Conversely, if I focus on people who aren’t getting it (in an effort to help them see the value of what I’m saying), then my body language is saying “why aren’t you getting this?” — and that is picked up by the entire audience, too.

    Focusing on the positive people brings the entire audience up, while focusing on the scoffers brings the entire audience down.

    To answer the question “how did I master this?” … I practiced in my living room! I placed throw pillows in various locations and then rehearsed my presentations giving “one thought per pillow” 🙂

    I will make occasional eye “contact” with scoffers in my audience, but I only “connect” with the positive people.


  4. Dan, thank you for sharing that detailed advice. I had not considered the way a speaker’s body language can convey a negative impression if he or she is attempting to connect with a member of the audience who is projecting negative vibes. I appreciate your sharing your practices with us. I love your Online Train the Trainer tips on Facebook too!

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