Correction. Good eye contact makes your audience think you’re a badass!
Whether you’re speaking to your board of directors, investors, customers, employees, or competing at a Toastmasters International Speech Contest, good eye contact makes you look confident! As Chris Anderson, TED Talks Conference curator, observes in his article How To Give A Killer Presentation in Harvard Business Review:
“Perhaps the most important physical act onstage is making eye contact.”
Speech contests are great for pushing your comfort level
After winning the 2016 Toastmasters International Division-level speech contest, I spoke with my competitors about competing, speaking, and eye contact. My competitor, Sarah, said she only briefly looked at people in the eye when she was speaking, darting around the audience for 7 minutes. She said, “I’m afraid to look at anybody for very long because I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable.”
I know what Sarah means, I felt the same way when I first got into Toastmasters. But the truth is, it was ME who initially felt uncomfortable making what felt like overly-extended eye contact.
And in order for your audience to trust you – to believe you and your story – you’ll need be ok with feeling uncomfortable while practicing making good eye contact. What can seem like overly-long eye contact for you, will come across as comfortable – normal – in your audience’s eyes.
My favorite barista on making eye contact in the real world
Elise works at Naked Lounge coffeehouse in Sacramento, and I asked her if she has any problem looking customers in the eye when she’s taking their order. “I’m fine when I’m the one taking the coffee order, when I’m the barista,” she said. “Sometimes the customer will have a hard time looking me in the eye. And some customers stare too long.” “On the other hand,” she noted, “if I’m at a concert and the singer looks right at me during a song, I can’t take it. I cringe and squirm. I have to look away.”
She went on to explain that she learned how to get good at making eye contact in her college communications class. Now, when she’s on stage or was presenting in front of students or serving coffee, she kicks ass. Otherwise, getting looked at can sometimes make her feel uncomfortable.
Good eye contact has a high return on investment (ROI)
Competing in a speech contest or speaking in front of judges and an audience at Startup Weekend Demo Day – and looking like you know what you’re talking about – takes practice. You want to come across as competent and confident during two very different situations:
- Making eye contact while you’re speaking
- Making eye contact while you’re getting back on track after you lose your train of thought
Looking investors in the eye, while desperately trying to remember what you were going to say, takes practice. No one should know that you lost your place or you’re drawing a blank. This is why practicing (Toastmasters Prepared Speeches and Table Topics) is so important. Toastmasters provides a safe, practice-oriented environment for you to practice speaking – and messing up – so you can be a superhero in the real world.
It’s vital to have a safe haven to experience messing up. Once you know how your body and mind react in the moment, messing up is less of a surprise. And you’ll have a chance to practice how to pause, take a breath, and get back on track.
What’s the return on investment of practicing making good eye contact? Your audience will more easily believe you and your story. As a byproduct of practicing making good eye contact, and messing up, you will be able to recover under fire (unlike world-famous film director Michael Bay during his meltdown on stage at CES 2014). And you will come across as confident. Confidence goes a long way toward:
- Getting votes
- Convincing investors to fund your startup
- Encouraging audience members to share your message with their friends and family
Stanford article says eye contact makes you look confident
Matt Abrahams’s article in Stanford Business, A Big Data Approach to Public Speaking, highlights Noah Zandan‘s key takeaways from analyzing 100,000 presentations: “…approximately 83% of human learning occurs visually. Your nonverbal behaviors such as stance, gestures, and eye contact are critical not only for conveying and reinforcing your messages, but they serve as the foundation of your audience’s assessments of your confidence.” As Zandan continues:
“In North American culture, audiences expect eye contact, and quickly feel ostracized when you fail to look out at them.”
How the hell do you get good at making eye contact?
If you’re in Toastmasters, take world-class public speaking coach Patricia Fripp‘s advice: stand at the front of your club’s room and, silently, stare at one person right in their eyes for 10 seconds. Then stare at the next person. Then stare at the next… until you’ve stared at every person in the room for 10 seconds each. Invite all club members to stand at the front of the room and do the same. Set aside 10 minutes so every club member will get a turn. This exercise is like straining to lift weights. And it only makes you stronger!
Also, use my eye contact practice tips – and you’ll look more confident in a week!