Imagine this: Your friend stomps into the room in a huff. He slams his bag onto his chair and slumps into it. You ask him if everything is okay. He replies with a sigh, “I’m fine.”
Are you more likely to believe what he says or how he acts?
As you know, actions speak louder than words. Despite what your friend says, you know he’s not “fine”. His non-verbal cues indicate otherwise.
Non-Verbal Cues are messages you communicate without using words and make up a huge part of communication. In fact, 55% of communication is dependent on visual cues like facial expression and hand gestures. As discussed here, research by Dr. Albert Mehrabian found that verbal cues (that is, the words you use) only make up 7% of communication. This is why people are more likely going to believe what they see rather than what they hear.
In this article on non-verbal cues in public speaking, you will learn how to develop positive eye contact and facial expression.
When you’re giving a speech, you’re actually having two conversations with the audience: the verbal and the non-verbal. When your words and actions are aligned, your message will be consistent, persuasive, and believable.
But if your verbal and non-verbal cues contradict, the audience will more likely believe what is not said. Roman philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero, once said:
“The face is a picture of the mind, with the eyes as its interpreter.”
With that, let’s dive into the importance of eye contact – and how to do it right.
The importance of eye contact in public speaking
Listeners naturally gravitate towards the speaker’s face when they are speaking. Establishing and maintaining eye contact during your speech is an essential non-verbal objective to achieve, for the following reasons:
1. Develop rapport
Looking at your audience in the eye makes them feel important and special while making you look more confident and sincere. People tend to associate the lack of eye contact with dishonesty or fear. Maintaining good eye contact builds a connection between you and the audience, making them more receptive to your ideas.
2. Collect feedback
Paying attention to your audience encourages you to “read the room”, allowing you to gauge if they are bored, skeptical, or angry. If your audience looks confused, you may want to slow down and reframe your argument. Collecting feedback this way allows you to change your strategy and shift your focus to suit the moment.
3. Demand attention
While eye contact allows the audience to connect with you, that same scrutiny demands the attention of your listeners. They are more likely to listen to you when you look at them because the added attention makes them accountable. The audience will feel compelled to listen. Do not underestimate people’s manners!
Though beneficial, eye contact is also the most difficult non-verbal cue to maintain. This is understandable because it’s nerve-wracking! However, once mastered, it can be a powerful tool.
Here are the basic Dos and Don’ts of eye contact:
1. Make individual eye contact with your listeners
2. Maintain eye contact throughout the speech
3. Distribute your gaze throughout the hall
4. Spend about 4 to 5 seconds on each person
1. Read your notes without looking up
2. Only look at the direction of your listeners (i.e. at the wall or other parts of the audience’s anatomy)
3. Dart or squint your eyes when making eye contact
4. Stare at any one person or section for too long
Let’s now move on to facial expressions.
Since the 19th century, Charles Darwin suggested that facial expressions are universal because the emotions behind them are innate. This is why in public speaking, the audience can easily recognize and pick up emotions from the speaker’s facial expression.
Your default expression on stage should be one that is happy and smiling. A lot of research has shown a direct correlation between smiling faces and attractiveness. You are more likable and relatable if you are smiling while you speak. However, this does not mean you should smile the entire time! A speaker’s expression should mirror the emotions he/she is trying to convey.
Emote on Stage
In the 20th century, Dr. Paul Ekman built on Charles Darwin’s theory and found that there were seven basic emotions with respective distinct (but universal) facial expressions. These emotions are: Happiness, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, Anger, Contempt, and Surprise.
For a speech to be persuasive, speakers must also engage the audience’s emotions. As George Campbell wrote in Philosophy of Rhetoric:
“When persuasion is the end, passion also must be engaged.”