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THE EYES HAVE IT, OR DO THEY?


A common strategy I always taught my students when teaching public speaking, and that has now carried over into my work preparing attorneys and witnesses for trial, is the importance of maintaining eye contact with your audience. The textbooks I used all emphasized that eye contact was critical for building a relationship with the listeners and conveying interest and sincerity.

However, a recent study published in Psychological Science suggests this may not be the best advice. The study found that subjects who were told to focus on the speaker’s eyes were less receptive to persuasion than those who focused on the speaker’s mouth. The exception to this rule was individuals who already agreed with the speaker’s opinion; they were more persuaded when they maintained eye contact.

I think the most important takeaway was conveyed by Julia Minson, co-lead researcher of the study. She suggests, “[The] findings highlight the fact that eye contact can signal very different kinds of messages depending on the situation. While eye contact may be a sign of connection or trust in friendly situations, it’s more likely to be associated with dominance or intimidation in adversarial situations.”

My hypothesis is that we have been conditioned not to trust individuals who employ “hard sell” tactics (think of the stereotypical used car salesperson), which often includes steady eye contact and feigned interest in your needs. As a result, people may subconsciously associate steady eye contact with someone trying to sell you something, which results in caution and skepticism.

This finding illustrates the difficulty in deciding how to advise speakers to address the issue of eye contact since it isn’t always evident whether one’s audience is friendly or adversarial. Speakers who are able to make a reasoned judgment about the disposition of their audience can employ the appropriate strategy. If a witness is walking into a hostile situation because of previous trial testimony, he or she may want to minimize direct eye contact, while keeping in mind that the converse also true.

This is just one study, but it is a finding worth considering when preparing for your next speaking opportunity. Consider whether the message you are trying to send through eye contact with your audience is truly the one they are interpreting from your behavior.

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