Non-Verbal Cues in Public Speaking

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.

Dr. Albert Mehrabian Non-Verbal Cues in Public Speaking

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Non-verbal cues

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!


importance of eye contact in public speaking as non-verbal cues

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


dos and don'ts of eye contact in public speaking

Let’s now move on to facial expressions.

Facial expression

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.

Default 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.

facial expression in public speaking

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. 

universal facial expression as non-verbal cues

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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.”

In other words, to make your listeners feel something, you must express that “something” first. 

Emotions are best expressed through facial expressions that the audience can “see”. For example, a feeling of anger should see your eyebrows crinkled, and your lips tensed into a frown. Inversely, a sense of happiness should see the corners of your lips and cheeks raised into a smile.

Check out this helpful page on how to express universal emotions into various micro-expressions. 

Using non-verbal cues in public speaking

Non-verbal cues are like puzzle pieces of a larger picture. If your non-verbal cues contradict your verbal cues, the audience will find it challenging to piece together your message. The most crucial non-verbal cue is making eye contact with the audience while the best way to emote in your speech is through your facial expressions.

As a speaker, you should:

1. Be aware of your non-verbal cues.
Most of these are involuntary, fueled by nerves or fear. You might give a worried glance, cross your arms, or pace nervously on stage. What’s important here is to be aware of your involuntary reactions and take control of them. Non-verbal cues should be done with intention.

2. Practice complementing non-verbal cues.
Your hand gestures or facial expressions should emphasize, reiterate, and enforce your message. It should never contradict what you are trying to say. A frown makes a sorrowful anecdote believable while a raised fist emphasizes a call for action.

3. Act natural.
Non-verbal cues shouldn’t be dramatic, excessive, or distracting. Public speaking isn’t acting. Non-verbal cues should complement the message, not overshadow it. Your audience can also tell if you’re faking these movements, which may result in a negative response.

non-verbal cues in public speaking

Join us for the next installment of “See yourself Speak” where we discuss vocal variety as a key set of non-verbal cues in public speaking.

Check this out!

Greta Thurnberg’s speech at the 2019’s UN Climate Action Summit was powerful and moving. Despite making references to her notes, she still established and maintained eye contact with her audience. Her facial expressions expressed anger and disappointment more than her words could ever do. Greta manages to convey so much emotion despite being seated and holding on to her notes. 

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