Make Drake-level eye contact without being creepy
Blog 7 of 8: Toastmasters, learn how to visually connect with your audience
As a member and the (former) Vice President of Education of Unity Toastmasters (a community club in Toastmasters International), I chose one of eleven Pathways — “Presentations Mastery” — as a public speaking goal. This is the blog series of eight posts I wrote in one month to complete Level 4.*
In an interview I read last year* about Drake, one of my favorite rappers, he discussed being called out for looking down at the ground during his performances. When he heard this critique, he consciously started making eye contact with audience members.
He made such precise eye contact with his audience members to the point that they would turn around to see if he was looking at someone else. Imagine that. An artist you paid money to see live in concert with his eyes trained directly on you. You’re either flattered or creeped out.
I, personally, think Drake is attractive and would have zero issues with him looking at me. Others may find that the level of focus off-putting. And that’s the thing about eye contact. It can get tricky sometimes — regardless of attraction.
Why eye contact helps your message
According to Psychology Today, a number of factors happen when someone makes eye contact while speaking (or performing):
- Enhances your memory of who is also looking at you
- Improves recall of verbal material (such as in a classroom lecture setting)
- Distracts from non-facial information or other tasks that were previously on your mind
- Makes you conscious of physiological responses of your own (ex. breathing, heart rate, sweating)
- Increases attraction to a potential mate
- Confirms you are paying attention to the speaker (or audience)
- Gives the impression that you are interested in what the other person is saying (or doing)
But how much eye contact is too much eye contact? Scientific American reports that 3.2 seconds is sufficient. If the person who is gazing at you seems trustworthy, you may be OK with him (or her) looking at you for a longer amount of time.
“Gaze conveys that you are an object of interest, and interest is linked to intention,” psychologist Alan Johnston explained to Scientific American.
But if someone seems threatening and holds your gaze, it’s too easy to assume that this person has bad intentions. This is when the discomfort from eye contact starts. And this should also be something that speakers are cognizant of when speaking.
You don’t want to try to make eye contact with someone for so long that she starts feeling self-conscious. Or, worse, she feels like she must put on a show of laughing, clapping or smiling to appease you instead of having a genuine reaction.
I, personally, have the opposite problem. In countless speeches, I look up at the ceiling. It’s never due to stage fright. People simply don’t make me nervous, but all the thoughts going on in my head can turn me into a basket case. I’ve been told several times about my lack of eye contact because it looks like I’m rolling my eyes. However, these are my actual reasons:
- My contacts may shift around, specifically during allergy season. It’s a trick to avoid using rewetting drops.
- This is a successful way to make me remember all of my discussion points without ever using notes. I can organize my thoughts with an imaginary checklist. I’ve caught myself doing this on camera too. If I look closely enough, I can see myself “blinking” points off my list as I make them.
- I want to avoid being the weirdo who is staring at one person too long.
One of my goals for 2019 is to figure out a happy medium between the two critiques I get the most:
- Stop talking so fast. (As a storyteller who gushes over people hanging onto my every word, sometimes I just want to blurt out all the good parts.)
- Try to make eye contact more than once with everyone in the crowd, specifically my speech evaluator. (I’m much better at it with Do Not Submit hosting because the only thing I’m really doing is trying to keep a crowd entertained and introduce people.)
In some cultures, it is rude to look at people in the eyes for long periods of time. That’s no problem for me to do. Clearly I’m pretty good at knowing if your ceiling needs to be painted or windows need to be washed, while I’m staring at my imaginary checklist.
But when I speak casually, I make easy eye contact with the person I’m speaking to and grin quite a bit. However, there’s something in the eyes that must match your smile to make both believable on and off the stage.
You can always tell when people’s mouths morph into smiles, but their eyes still look angry or sad. I don’t believe in polite smiling anymore than I do shying away from eye contact. I either look at you and smile easily or you won’t see my teeth at all — unless Drake walks by.
But enough about OVO. How about y-o-u? In 2019, what are your goals to become a better public speaker? Is it eye contact, smiling more, losing the filler words or something else?
Tell me in the comment section below.
* After three hours of trying to find the Drake interview again, I gave up. Here is a summarized version of it.
Additional posts from Shamontiel’s eight-part Toastmasters blog series:
This post was originally published on February 18, 2019 on Chicago Now’s “Message from Montie” blog.