Eye Contact: Building the Emotional Connection

Eye connection is the single most effective way to convey confidence and to have the greatest impact whether speaking one on one or to hundreds of listeners. In the Western culture we use our eyes as a powerful vehicle of communication. Truly seeing someone is to affirm their presence and allows you to pave the way for an emotional connection. But many people do not utilize this tool either in presentations or in every day communication.

The science behind the advice to use your eyes to connect with your audience tells us that nerves in the eyes lead directly to the orbito-frontal area of the brain, an area which is key for empathy and feelings of connection to another. When the eyes of two people meet, their brains register a rapid and powerful connection, based in the junction between the emotional and thinking areas of the brain.

A recent study showed that we are so tuned into eye contact that we are even more likely to buy cereal if the cartoon character on the box is looking at us instead of away.  Amazingly, this study showed that even blind people sense and respond to eye contact.

Another study looked at how patients reacted to their doctors, and, unsurprisingly, it turns out that doctors who make the most eye contact are seen as more empathetic than likable.

Presenters need to know that the direct gaze builds trust and establishes you as a confident, authoritative speaker. If you just scan faces and avoid direct eye contact, your audience will not feel seen, and they will be less likely to listen to you. Sustained eye contact also allows audience members to communicate with you by their facial expressions, so you can respond to any skepticism or uncertainty you see.

How can you use this knowledge with awareness to facilitate a sense of connectedness with your audiences, or simply with people you communicate with every day? Here are some tips:

  • Take the time to look at and connect with your listeners individually for the length of a sentence. This avoids the "scanning" that can have you appear nervous and anxious, as though you are hoping it will all be over soon.
  • Walk using the entire front of the room to include movement so that you can engage listeners on either side of the room. Connect with one of your listeners with your eye contact before moving towards them. This will give your movement across the room a purpose, vs. just walking to walk. Stay in the spot you landed and connect with 3- 4 listeners before moving again to avoid pacing.
  • When presenting to a small group ensure that you look and include all your listeners individually during your presentation. To not include someone leaves you at a great risk of offending someone because you did not affirm their presence.
  • When presenting to large audience, look at a person in each section of the audience and what will happen is the "spill over" effect. The listeners sitting close by will feel as if you are looking at them.

If you want to practice eye connection, cut faces out from magazines and tape them onto chairs to simulate a presentation environment. Then work on delivering a thought or sentence to each one at random. It usually takes 3 to 6 seconds with each person to complete a thought or sentence.

Practice eye connection daily, and soon it will become a habit that will always stand you in good stead!