Look at Moi – The beauty of eye contact

We’re back in the studio and I’m able to look my students in the eye. What a seemingly simple gift that I will never take for granted again!

At Viva we were able to adapt to online learning without sacrificing the quality of education or that wonderful warm feeling that occurs when our students congregate.

However, as anyone who has ever participated in a video call will know, there is one essential ingredient in communication that you cannot replicate online: eye contact.

On Zoom, you can look directly at someone’s face, but your eyes don’t meet. If they appear to do so, it is merely an illusion, as your eyes are connecting with the lens of the camera, not that of your fellow person.

It’s not just that certain games or activities that we use in speech and drama rely on eye contact, it’s that eye contact is a core part of human connection – and that’s at the heart of what we do at Viva.

Performance, presentation and communication all rely on connection.

How much do we communicate with our eyes?

You may or may not realise it, but you are communicating with your eyes all the time.

Think of the last time someone gave you a ‘hairy eyebrow’ or ‘had a look in their eye’. These sayings exist in our lexicon because they mean so much in how we interpret eye contact and understand other people’s behaviour.

When you hear news, receive information, get a surprise or feel pain, these reactions come into your face and your eyes. Even when you avoid eye contact, you send a message to those around you.

From a young age, humans are drawn to each other’s eyes. Scientists have found that babies follow adults eyes rather than just their head movement. Eye contact is in our DNA!

(One a side note – as more and more people take up wearing masks at the moment, you may find yourself communicating with your eyes even more. Listen to these fun tips on how to communicate with your eyes from Sammy J).

What makes eye contact so critical?

The way you look at someone can communicate many things, including interest, affection, hostility, or attraction. Eye contact has a significant role to play conversation and presentation:

1. You feel the flow

Eye contact is vital to maintaining the flow of conversation and for gauging the other person’s response. Through eye contact, we instinctively know when it’s our turn to speak and when the other person still has more to say.

In presentation, making eye contact with the audience helps you gauge whether they are following along with you, or if you need to alter or slow down your delivery. You are able to sense whether they understand, need to ask questions, or are eager to hear more.

2. You convey respect

Whether speaking to a large audience or having a private conversation, making eye contact is a sign of respect for the person you are communicating with. Avoiding eye contact can come across as disinterest or a sign of disrespect for the audience.

A good communicator will not only give eye contact to their audience, but also receive eye contact from the person speaking. You can use eye contact to show you are giving undivided attention.

3. You can reveal your thoughts and feelings

Eye contact is a powerful way of conveying your thoughts, feelings and understanding. Sometimes these thoughts and feelings are communicated in your eyes so quickly that the listener picks up on something before you’ve even said anything! It’s important to mindful of this, and become aware of how much communication comes into your face and eyes.

Revealing your feelings with your eyes can be a huge strength – again, think of the language we have around it: ‘kind eyes’, ‘wide-eyed’, ‘bright-eyed’ – and you can use this to convey understanding to the audience. It helps people feel seen and heard, and builds a strong trust between the communicators.

4. You build rapport

Conveying trust, honesty and understanding is vital to being a good communicator. Allowing yourself to connect to people with eye contact will allow you to build relationships and rapport with them.

This rapport is crucial for communicating with trust, authority and impact. It is a key element of social and professional communication – whether in one on one conversation, or presenting to a larger audience.

When you have strong rapport with your listeners, you’ll immediately feel more relaxed in communication.

5. You communicate competence, certainty and confidence

When you are feeling nervous, it can feel really tricky to make eye contact. So many students tell us they want to look away rather than look at the audience! We feed in sneaky tricks, like looking just above people’s heads rather than looking straight into their eyes.

Funnily enough, making eye contact with the audience can be calming and reassuring. Our students say they feel the support and encouragement of the audience once they look at them.

Eye contact conveys certainty, competence and confidence – wonderful, powerful skills for speakers young and old.

Teaching the role of eye contact to young people

We have impressed the significance of eye contact on all our students:

When speaking in front of an audience, eye contact draws them in.

When speaking one on one, it displays confidence and shows interest.

When performing, it includes the audience in the journey of the text.

Eye contact is fundamental to communication.

This small but integral connection is enough to reignite a sense of play in the studio. It’s a lovely change from online classes. I’ve noticed three key advantages of being able to once again make eye contact with the students:

  1. Games are able to be teacher-facilitated, rather than teacher-driven. I no longer have to confirm whose turn is next as the students can establish a flow between them!
  2. Eye contact has reignited understanding of audience rapport. Students can feel and sense the undivided attention of their classmates and enjoy the audience response!
  3. Eye contact has reignited our connection, made all the stronger for being separated by a screen for these past months.

The saying goes, the eyes are the windows to the soul. So the joy of being back in the studio, more than getting out of the house, more than the absence of a time delay, more than being away from a screen, comes from being able to look at my students and see them looking back at me. I feel it in my soul.

Body Language FAQ

How long should you make eye contact for?

It’s normal to hold eye contact more when you’re listening than when you’re speaking. And in case you’re wondering how long eye contact should last, it’s generally understood that three seconds is the length of time most people are comfortable with (to make eye contact with one person directly). It can be less than that, but it’s rarely any longer.

Don’t get stuck on this timing though! Rather, just pay attention the next time you find yourself in conversation with someone you’re comfortable with, you’ll notice that about three seconds is the maximum time you’d look at each other before someone looks away.

What is gesture?

Gestures are movements we make with our arms or hands to communicate something.

Gestures are woven into the fabric of our daily lives: we point, beckon and wave without even thinking about it! We use our hands when we’re arguing or speaking animatedly – expressing ourselves with gestures that are so natural we’re hardly aware we are using them.

The meaning of some gestures varies across cultures and regions – a thumbs up is not a thumbs up everywhere! We teach the students at Viva to be mindful that gestures may carry different meanings depending on where you are in the world and who is in your audience. A top (crucial!) tip for global presenters.

What is facial expression?

Facial expression is the way you use your face to communicate mood and feeling. Sometimes you make facial expressions without even knowing!

Facial expressions tend to be universal – a smile, frown, a raised eyebrow, a discerning look. The facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust are the same across cultures.

Is posture a type of body language?

The way you hold yourself and use your body carries a lot of meaning in communication. These signals can reveal how well you’re listening and whether or not you care.

Your posture communicates a wealth of information to the world. Slouching may convey disinterest or boredom, whereas standing tall and open can convey readiness and enthusiasm.

Always be mindful of how your posture may be coming across.