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Connecting through the Eyes

BY RUSSELL FLEURY, M.A. and MARK W. HARDWICK, PhD.

Think about the physiology of vision.  Light enters the front of the eyeball, hits the rods and cones at the back of the eye, and creates an electrical impulse that shoots around the optic nerve to the optic lobe at the back of the skill.  Your brain then takes the better part of a second to decipher this electrical Morse code.  While the act of turning the electrical impulses into light, color and contrast is an unconscious brain activity, putting the shapes into a comprehensible context is a conscious brain activity. That is where we create a problem for ourselves as speakers.

It is perfectly natural to look rapidly around the room when first standing in front of an audience.  This rapid eye movement creates visual over-stimulation.  It forces our brain to process incoming visual stimuli on a conscious level.  When speaking to a group, we have another conscious activity that is trying to occur simultaneously... the delivery of our prepared topic! Our brains do not do two things at once very well, on a conscious level.  This is why our mind will sometimes go blank during the delivery of our prepared topic -- to allow our brain to catch up on the processing of visual stimuli.

Speakers naturally solve this problem by looking at ceilings and floors, where there is usually a blank space with little visual stimuli to process.  This works!  It would also work to close your eyes, as a speaker, to limit incoming visual stimulus.  For obvious reasons, closing your eyes would not be a good choice.  The most productive way to limit visual stimuli is to stare at the eye of an audience member.  (If you’re far enough away from your audience, you can stare at both their eyes at once.)  There are three advantages to limiting visual stimulus this way.

The benefits of controlled eye contact are:  First, you can “read” the response from your audience as you deliver a whole thought to one individual.  Second, direct eye contact conveys sincerity in all cultures across the world.  Third, as a speaker, you get the advantage of limiting visual stimuli so you can think more clearly.

When pauses are added to this controlled eye contact technique, you enhance its effectiveness.  The pause packages your words into one cohesive thought at a time for the audience.  It also adds emphasis to the key points you wish to convey as a speaker.  Also, when you can’t think of what to say next, this pause buys you thinking time without giving away to the audience that your mind has gone momentarily blank.

The mastery of this controlled eye contact technique is the foundation skill for successfully talking to a group of people.