Facial Expressions and Eye Contact

Learning Objectives

Identify the importance of eye contact in public speaking.

Facial expressions are important when speaking. A smile is the best way to start a speech. It relaxes you and the audience. Facial expressions can also enhance the words you say, much like gestures. If you have sympathy for the subject of your speech, it is OK to show it! If you’re not sure what you look like when giving a speech, practice in front of a mirror or record yourself speaking.

Also, remember that the audience can’t see your notecards and doesn’t know what you’ve got planned. If you make a mistake, no one else will know unless you show them with your facial reaction! So, watch twisting your face when something doesn’t go according to plan. Take a breath and keep going.

Man frowning with folded arms

Cue Incongruence: Imagine this person saying: “Thank you so much for coming! I’m really thrilled to be speaking with you today!” When body language contradicts spoken language, we tend to believe the nonverbal signals over the speaker’s words.

Above all, it’s important to avoid cue incongruence in your facial expressions or body language. Cue incongruence occurs when your verbal cues say one thing, and your nonverbal cues say another. If you tell someone good news and they frown, look down, and say, “That’s great. I’m really happy for you,” how would you interpret this? Do they seem happy for you? Or is something else going on? Chances are, you assumed this hypothetical person was not happy for you. As this example suggests, most people actually tend to trust nonverbal more than verbal cues.[1][2] For this reason, it’s very important that your nonverbal language reinforces the message you’re trying to get across to your audience.

Finally, the most important way to engage an audience is by looking at them. Eye contact is one of the key ingredients to successful speaking. A speaker who reads their notes constantly, looks at their feet or their visuals, and never looks up at the audience communicates that they are nervous and unprepared. A speaker who tries to look at every part of the audience will be sure to win them over by confidently engaging them with the material. Put a reminder on your notecard to look left, look right, and look center to help you remember to look up from the notes. When you do look up, keep your head up for a bit without looking back down quickly. You will need to rehearse your speech a lot to make sure you are familiar enough with the speech that you can use the note cards as reminders of what to say.

If you are speaking on video, remember that making eye contact with the audience actually means making eye contact with the lens of the camera. When speaking online, some speakers put their cues on sticky notes placed around the camera lens (but not covering it) to make it easier to glance at their notes while maintaining eye contact. Of course, just as in a real conversation, it’s natural to break eye contact and look away now and then; just try to do so deliberately, rather than furtively, as though you have something to hide.

  1. Burgoon, Judee K. "Nonverbal communication research in the 1970s: An overview." Annals of the International Communication Association 4.1 (1980): 179–97.
  2. Stiff, James B., et al. "Effect of cue incongruence and social normative influences on individual judgments of honesty and deceit." Southern Journal of Communication 55.2 (1990): 206–229.