Speaking Eye to Eye

A meeting of the eyes denotes a meeting of the minds.

Eye to Eye
“The eyes have one language everywhere.” 
        George Herbert (1593–1633) 

It’s rush hour on the subways of New York City. People are jammed together, forced to physically invade each other’s personal space for an entire journey. New Yorkers know the only way to cope is to avoid looking at anyone’s eyes. Thus, we create a psychological barrier to communication, a protective shield of intentional indifference. It’s a powerful demonstration in reverse of a vital element of human communication: eye contact. 

That’s why one of the primary rules in Toastmasters is to “speak to people’s eyes.” The importance of speaking eye to eye with your listener goes without question: It’s hard to trust someone who won’t look you in the eye. But the actual nature of that exchange of glances is not always well understood. Indeed, many speakers who practice what they consider “eye contact” fall short of the true purpose and meaning of the act. 

Of course, speakers also need to respect cultural differences in this area. While direct eye contact is valued in the United States, it can be considered an invasion of privacy in some places – Asian countries, for example. When speaking to such audiences, don’t focus on one individual for too long – it could embarrass them. 

But where eye contact is valued, make eye contact. Too many speakers believe that a constant scan of the audience with their eyes, back and forth like a lawn sprinkler, will do the job. I recently visited a church where the minister read her sermon from the pulpit, glancing up every now and then at the back wall of the room, high above her congregation’s heads. This technique is taught in some books as a way to reduce stage fright, but in my experience it seldom diminishes fear and cannot increase understanding of your message. 

Those who just give the audience a quick glimpse of their baby blues are not making eye contact. Trying to talk to everybody is actually talking to nobody. When we sit in an audience listening to a speaker, we want to feel spoken to, directly and personally. Therefore, the proper mindset for the speaker shouldn’t be, “Let them see my eyes” – but rather, “Use my eyes to see theirs.”

                    "Trying to talk to everybody is
                    actually talking to nobody."

Who is the better judge of effective communication: the transmitter or the receiver? The receiver is the only one of the pair to know whether the ideas being expressed have landed and are well understood. You, the speaker, are the transmitter, so you don’t know how well you are doing...unless you also become a receiver. The purpose of eye contact is to create a give-and-take relationship with your audience. 

“Every audience is a treasure trove of experience and wisdom that no speaker can match,” writes Lee Glickstein in his book Be Heard Now. “The way to tap this treasure is to put a priority on the relationship with the audience.” 

See if They Understand 
Here is how I believe good eye contact should work: As you ­­trans­mit your message – with your words, your facial expression, ­posture, tone of voice, gestures – you watch your listeners’ eyes to determine whether or not they understand. Just as any telephone has two elements – one for sending and the other for receiving – so do public speakers. In our case, our voices and bodies are sending and our eyes are receiving. No one would fail to put a phone to their ear and only use the transmitter, so we must not ignore our reception devices – our eyes! 

The human eye is extremely expressive. There’s a lot to be learned by looking into the eyes of your audience. Smiles, frowns, boredom, excitement, understanding, empathy – all these and countless other messages are being sent your way as you speak. The process of receiving these messages is called “reading your audience,” and it’s a crucial skill if you want to persuade or inspire them. Read the effectiveness of your communication with the audience as you speak, and if need be, change your tactics to engage them more. 

In her book It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It, master speechwriter Joan Detz writes, “Good eye contact builds rapport, fosters trust and creates a more likeable persona....We rely on eye contact [from a speaker] to judge truthfulness.” 

When you think of your eyes as receivers rather than transmitters, it changes your style as a speaker. Now you can become interested in your audience as a group of individuals and speak to them one at a time. How? Deliver a full thought to each person you look at. Lock eyes with that listener and see the response in her eyes. Then pause, find another person and deliver the next thought. Read his eyes as you speak. If you feel that method slows you down, all the better – most speakers tend to rush. 

One description of a successful speech is “a conversation, amplified.” It’s useful to remember when considering eye contact that a good, steady meeting of the eyes in conversation denotes a meeting of the minds. 

Eyeing a More Relaxed Style 
An added bonus to good eye contact is that it throws your attention off yourself and onto your listener. Self-consciousness hinders a speaking performance. Focusing on others can help you relax and perform naturally. 

Years ago, I experienced a vivid demonstration of the value of eye contact. My friend invited me to a party – a gathering of deaf people held in a school gymnasium. When we entered, I saw about 50 people lining the walls around the perimeter. I wandered out into the middle of the floor, but my friend pulled me back to the side. “You’re interrupting conversations,” he said. 

Indeed, I began to realize that the room was filled with animated dialogues between people up to 50 feet apart. They told stories with their hands, their face and their emotions. Though I didn’t know American Sign Language well, I could easily catch the drift of most of the stories and enjoy the laughter along with everyone else. 

It was a powerful reminder about what makes successful communication. Toastmasters must establish both sides of our two-way signals: Too many speakers think their only job is to talk and the audience’s job is to listen. Wrong! If you want to be a successful speaker, you must learn to read the crowd with your eyes as you speak. In doing so, you take responsibility for the reception as well as the transmission of your speech. 

The speaker’s eye is a subtle and powerful tool. Bear in mind the words of the famed English writer G.K. Chesterton: “There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect.” 

About the Author

Mike Landrum

Mike Landrum is an executive speaker’s coach and speechwriter in New York. He published a volume of essays titled The Best of the Passionate Speaker. Reach him at www.CoachMike.com.