July 10, 2013
Most public speaking coaches will tell you to “make eye contact” when addressing an audience. A few may advise you to look at people’s foreheads or hair if eye contact makes you uncomfortable. Our method is to turn to research from sports psychology, and use it to help lawyers look their clients, fact finders, and colleagues in the eye.
There is no getting around it—you must be able to meet the gaze of everyone you speak to. Attorneys may not use the crutch of looking past or beyond people because eye contact feels funny. Just like athletes, you must keep your eye on the ball. Just like an athlete, you may find your eyes drawn away from where you should be looking.
Eye contact may trigger an adrenaline response, which tricks us into feeling like we have an emergency on our hands. The initial discomfort of eye contact with any given person is deeply rooted in our instinctive predator-prey response, making us look away. We break eye contact just when we should be settling into a conversational relationship. Once eye contact is broken, the speaker is then challenged to figure out exactly where to look. Awkwardness ensues.
Quiet Eye training in sports helps athletes prevent their eyes from darting around when they should be looking deliberately at a ball or a goal. When golfers look longer at the ball on the tee instead of constantly glancing up at the green, they are more accurate. When soccer penalty takers gaze longer at the spot they want to hit, they make more goals. Quiet Eye training is deliberate and mindful. It focuses the mind by focusing the eyes.
You can do the same. Look deliberately at the people you talk to, resisting the impulse to look away, or look at your notes, or look at your PowerPoint presentation. Lock your gaze with the witness on the stand, or the judge on the bench.
The first few seconds of such gaze-locking may feel uncomfortable. Hang in there until any anxiety melts away, which it inevitably will. Your heart rate will surge, then fall. Adrenaline will ebb and trickle away.
Once you have focused your eyes on another person’s, engaging is easier. You will read cues from them, such as whether they are following you, how they are feeling, what they do or don’t understand. We all have such conversations all day long, with colleagues, friends, and family. Focusing your eyes in more formal situations will make you feel normal. Professional conversation will feel natural.
When speaking to a group, focus longer on individuals. Don’t let your eyes flit around the room with little sustained focus. Find the eyes of as many listeners as you can. If you have a jury in front of you, make sure you look at them all, with sustained eye contact, over the course of your trial.
Resist also looking down at your notes and continuing to speak. If you need to refer to notes, pause when you do it; then look up and talk to people instead of paper or a computer screen.
And when you look, gaze like an athlete. Look longer. Keep your eyes quiet.