Eye Contact in Public Speaking

Speak Eyeball to Eyeball!

In his book “Great Speaking – Stage Techniques to Tame Those Butterflies” Hal Persons says……

“In verbal communication, your eyes are the most important organ”

Big statement, but is he right?… you bet he’s right.

Think about it, when you talk to someone in a normal conversation, you speak eyeball to eyeball and you have no problems doing it. In fact, not looking at someone sends out signals of not being interested or being nervous or even worse… not telling the truth.

Same in Public Speaking. The speaker has to create that eyeball to eyeball experience in order to make you feel that they are speaking to you. If they ain’t looking at you… they ain’t speaking to you, so you feel excluded and stop listening.

Eye Contact… how do you do it?

The old advice was to scan the audience in a letter W configuration, creating the impression that you are looking at people in the audience. Trouble is, that looks pretty artificial and the speaker doesn’t get any feedback from the audience.

My advice… actually look people in the eyes and speak to them. Look at someone in the front and speak to them, look at someone on the right and speak to them, look at someone at the back and speak to them… I could go on all day, but you get the idea.

When you ask a question, ask a single person and wait for their reaction, when you deliver a punchline, deliver it to a single person and wait for their reaction.

The audience will feel involved and you will get that all important feedback. You’ll notice frowns, smilling faces, nodding heads. You are interacting with the audience.

Practical things to improve eye contact

In an ideal world we would all speak off the cuff without notes and with our eyes fully on the audience. But for most of us, we will be using notes, and if you are looking at your notes… you ain’t looking at the audience. Don’t worry, there are a few practical things that you can do to improve your eye contact with the audience whilst taking the odd crafty glance at your notes:

  • Use your notes wisely – whatever form of notes you use, make sure that the writing is big enough to read easily. Rehearse enough to allow you to take quick looks to remind you what’s coming next. And if your notes are on A4 sheets, only write on the top two thirds so you don’t have to lower your head to see the bottom of the sheet.
  • Are your glasses up to the job? – if you wear bifocals or variofocals make sure that you can read your script easilly, through the bottom of your glasses. If you can only read your script through the top of your glasses, you will have to keep dropping your head. Keep your head still and drop your eyes to see your script.
  • The lectern is your friend – make sure that the lectern is set at the correct height for you i.e. so that you don’t have to drop your head to see your notes. And stand about an arms length away from the lectern.

Never Speak to an Audience

I’ll finish where I started by going back to Hal Persons book. Having stressed that you must always speak “eyeball to eyeball” and never to an audience, he says……

“To accomplish this, you must eliminate from your very thinking that you ever talk to a group of people. Never talk to an audience. Never talk to a class. Never talk to a meeting. Never talk to a congregation. Never talk to the Kiwanis Club. Never talk to the PTA.
You talk to 1,000 people… one at a time.”

I’ve no idea what the Kiwanis Club is, but Hal’s solution sounds perfect to me. It cuts through all the theory and technique, you don’t have to remember or practise anything, all you have to do is what you do every day of your life… speak to real people, eyeball to eyeball.

Thanks to Hal Persons for writing such a great book
Special thanks to Elena Snow for allowing us to use her stunning image

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  1. Hi Keith,

    Although I’ve never done public speaking, these are great tips. I know if I was in an audience and the speaker appeared to be talking to me, I’d be more apt to listen not let my thoughts drift away.

    P.S. Thank you for dropping by my blog and commenting. I’ll be replying to your comment later this evening.

    Happy Blogging!

  2. Hey Keith,

    Just came from my blog reading the comment you left. Thanks for your feedback.

    I completely agree with what you say when it comes to public speaking. I’ve only really done it a few times from a stage or podium and to be honest I was so nervous I don’t remember what the heck I did.

    But I have spoken to groups of 10 to 30 people a lot but I was on the floor surrounded by my listeners so we were on the same eye level and it made it easy to look into their eyes. In doing this kind of speaking I’m not the least bit nervous. I can’t explain it, that’s just the way it works for me.

    If I ever have to speak from a stage again(I’m sure I won’t)I’ll make sure to concentrate on looking into people’s eyes and see if it makes them more interested and me less nervous.

    Jeff Sargent

    • Hi Jeff
      Believe me, I know all about being scared out there.
      Big problem is… your brain stops working.
      That’s partly why I started this site, because in a relatively short time you can get those nerves under control. And dare I say it? Even start to enjoy it.

      Appreciate your stopping by and leaving a comment that adds to the discussion.

  3. Enjoyed reading this – and anyone else who did might like to have a look at a blog I posted a while back on ‘Eye contact,public speaking and the case of President Zuma’s dark glasses at http://bit.ly/3Flm7m

    • Hi Max
      I get very nervous when learned professors leave comments on my blog.
      I must have read your book “Lend Me Your Ears” three or four times.
      Starting to look a bit worn.
      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Hi, Keith. I’ve been working on the skills of public speaking and presentation since 1973. Your advice about Speakers Clubs is really sound. They really do give you a sympathetic audience on which to cut your teeth, and friendly advice and guidance from others who share your ambitions to become a better speaker. They are a great place to develop confidence and competence. When I started, I just wanted to get over being terrified of opening my mouth in public. Eye contact was a major obstacle. I just couldn’t do it. But looking ’em in the eye one by one really does turn a wall of faces into a bunch of friendly listeners, – eyes have that amazing ability to establish personal contact even across a room. I’m now getting invitations from all over GB to speak to some wonderful people. Speakers Clubs did it for me; and it’s been fun!

    • Hi Joe
      Couldn’t agree more with your comments about Speakers Clubs. A great place to get real practice… audience and all!
      I’ve heard you speak many times and have always been impressed… a great advert for Speakers Clubs.
      Please visit again and share some of your experiences.

  5. Hi keith, can i just say excellent website with some really useful points. in my job recruiting i regularly present to clients, sometimes in groups or panels of 4 or five. I am not naturally a confident public speaker and there can be alot to remember so a few simple tips is great to get started.

    Mark Hughes

    • Hi Mark
      Must be a nightmare in recruitment at the moment!
      I gesss that Presentation Skills are a must in yor line of work.
      Hope we can help you out.

  6. Sorry for the late comment – been quite ill lately.

    A great site and a good resource for budding and experienced speakers alike.

    I’d like to include a link to this site in the Midlands District Site if I may.

    • Hi Brian
      Sorry to hear that you have been ill. Hope you are on the mend.
      Thanks for your kind words and please feel free to link to us from the ASC Midlands District website.
      Hope that you will be a regular visitor.

  7. Hi Keith, I get too nervous during public speaking that I don’t think I’d able to look anyone in the eyes. any tips for overcoming the fear of public speaking?

    • Hi Rose
      Wow, you’ve jumped straight to the big one… Fear of Public Speaking.
      I’m putting an article together on just that subject but my quick tips would be:

      1 Remember that everyone else is nervous.

      2 Join a Speakers Club and get plenty of practice and support. Toastmasters in US, Association of Speakers Clubs or Toastmasters in the UK.

      Hope that helps and please keep checking for my full article.

  8. Thanks for the advice. I won’t be doing any public speaking for a while yet, but some day.

  9. Hi Keith

    I remember being advised to pick out individuals at random points around the room. To do this pick out people who are easy to focus back on as you move your eye-contact around he room. Examples inlude a bald-headed man, a stunning blonde (not PC I know), someone wearing a bright colour or anything tha quickly attracts the eye. Works for me maybe it will for others.


    • Hi Russ
      Picking out individuals who are easy to focus on sounds like great advice to me.
      I’m sure some of our readers will find that a useful tip.
      Hope you are having a great speaking season over in Loughborough.
      Please keep in touch.

  10. Great advice Keith. I just need to remember it when faced with an audience.

    • Hi Joe
      Thanks for your comment.
      Good to see that you do take time off from WordPress to check out a few other topics.
      I’ve got some great articles coming up so please keep having a peek.

  11. Compelling blog post. Presenting and public speaking is really a daunting topic for most people so almost any assistance to allow them the best way to conquer their fear is definitely considerably valued. I might want to make use of this kind of posting on the new public speaking site that I’m building. Can you please let me know if this is feasible. Thank you, Jane.

  12. I do not believe I have heard this approach before. My only formal training in public speaking was a single class in high school. In that class they recommended looking “above” the audience. For example, if there were 5 rows of people sitting, stare at an imaginary sixth in the back. I was never too keen on that idea, and the idea of personalizing seems a lot friendlier and sensible to me!
    .-= Ryan Cowles´s last blog ..Taking a Train Across the Country – Part One =-.

    • Hi Ryan
      Give it a try next time you have an audience.
      Don’t overdo it though. It’s easy to intimidate people when you look directly at them.
      A few seconds here, a few seconds there and keep looking for the smiling faces, they lift your spirits.

  13. Great blog thanks for your thoughts

  14. Hi Keith!

    absolutely, I am sure that when you concentrate on a single person, one after another, it is mutually beneficial, you feel more connected and they are participating.

    Have You done much public speaking?

    have a great great day

    • Hi Martyna
      You’ve hiit the nail on the head. Everyone feels more connected – speaker and audience.
      I’ve been speaking now for about ten years and have been fortunate enough to get through to a couple of national speaking finals in the UK.
      How about you – are you involved with Public Speaking?

    • wow, that’s impressive, how are You using the skill?
      I am not involved with public speaking yet, I am still a bit shy when it comes to facing the crowds, so next time I will concentrate on a particular individual.


    • Hi Martyna
      I’m the Midlands Area Development Officer for the Association of Speakers Clubs in the UK.
      I spend my time spreading the word about Public Speaking and helping people overcome their fears.
      I’m also a member of a Sans Souci Speakers Club who are based in Solihull just outside Stratford Upon Avon in the UK.

  15. I think you’re spot on with the importance of eye contact. I’ve always been suspicious of people who have no eye contact when speaking to you, it’s almost as if they’re trying to hide something.

    I have to admit though it would be hard to do in a big crowd, but if you see that the speaker is continually focusing on those around you, you’re not going to fade away because you never know, that next person may be you.
    Sire´s last great post ..Are Your Goals For 2011 AchievableMy Profile

  16. I think eye contact is very very important in public speaking. How a public speaker handles it is crucial to the success of the speech.

  17. Hi Keith — Love easyP’s new look!

    Keep this is mind when establishing eye to eye contact with members of your audience:
    “Having eye contact for more than 6 seconds without looking away or blinking reveals a desire for either sex or murder.”

    Always enjoy adding a little tidbit to the conversations here. 😉
    Melanie Kissell @SoloMompreneur´s last great post ..Out With The Trash And In With The TreasuresMy Profile

  18. Hi Mel
    Glad you like the new look and thanks for the tidbit.
    I’ll be using the old stop watch on all my eye contacts from now on.
    Don’t want the ladies thinking that I want to murder them… or worse!

    So right that yours is the first comment on the new site and what a fabulous comment it is!
    Keith Davis´s last great post ..Online Video: Un Art… Une TechniqueMy Profile