Your Eyes Speak: Eye Contact in Storytelling

Eye contact is crucial for storytelling to a group of people. In my storytelling courses, I see most people underestimating this vital storytelling skill. So, how do you connect with your eyes? Practical tips and mistakes to avoid.

Making eye contact is a vital storytelling skill. Through eye contact, you connect with your listeners. Each one will feel like the story is told especially to them. The key to successful eye contact is to tell your story with soft eyes to the individuals in the room, one by one.

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💡 As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. I get a little percentage whenever you buy something after clicking one of my affiliate links. Thanks!

Why is making eye contact important?

Eye contact is important when you tell a story to a group.

Why? What happens when you make and maintain eye contact with a group of listeners?

Eye contact is all about making and maintaining a connection with your listeners. Connecting with your eyes makes your listeners feel seen, makes them feel they see you, and builds an invisible community.

Eye contact makes your listeners feel seen

When you look somebody in the eyes when telling a story, they feel like you are telling this story especially to them. They are welcome, they matter, they are there. They are part of the storytelling event.

In theater, there is often a so-called 4th wall between the audience and the performers. The audience does not connect directly with the performers.

In storytelling, there is no 4th wall. There is no audience watching a performer; the listeners are part of the storytelling event.

Eye contact makes your listeners feel they see you

Genuine eye contact works two ways. When you open yourself and look somebody in the eyes, they look back into you.

There is a reason eyes are called the window to the soul. Eyes convey what is going on inside. It is difficult to fake that.

When you allow your listeners to look back in your eyes, they will see you. This builds the trust you need to take them (deeper) into the story.

Eye contact builds an invisible community

When you connect to more and more individuals in your audience, the feeling that you are all together in the world of the story grows.

💡 Imagine every time you connect, you create an invisible thread between you and one of your listeners. Pretty soon, the room will be full of threads connecting you to many, many listeners.

Here, I am a bit at a loss for words to explain this phenomenon better. Imagine attention flowing to you along these threads. The more attention flows to you, the more others will be drawn into the story, until you all feel like you are together in the story world.

❓ Have you experienced such moments as a listener? Have you listened to a story and the outer world ceased to exist for a little while?

Eye contact helps you to stay in the here and now

When you look into the eyes of your listeners, you tune out distractions—external distractions like sounds, movement, and lights, and internal distractions like fear, nerves, and your inner critic.

Eye contact helps you to listen to your listeners

Through the connection with the audience, you will notice how they react. Frowns, boredom, delight, it all comes back to you. You will use this while you are continuing your story.

Why is it sometimes hard to make eye contact?

So, if eye contact is essential, why is it sometimes so hard?

Making eye contact when telling a story to a group does not come naturally to most of us. There are some clear reasons for that.

Eye contact requires vulnerability

Standing on your own before a group is already a vulnerable position. Opening yourself up to a genuine connection with people you don’t know introduces even more vulnerability, especially during periods in your life when you already feel more vulnerable and insecure.

Make no mistake: making eye contact is not easy, especially not at the beginning of your story, when it mainly costs energy.

That is why many people avoid it or fake it by looking at things or spaces between people.

Eye contact makes it difficult to use other brain functions

Have you ever noticed that people tend to look away or look up when thinking about something? It’s because when you look into somebody’s eyes, you are so mentally stimulated that there is less space for other thought processes.

💡 Interesting article about this on Research Digest: Why it’s hard to talk and make eye contact at the same time

To stay in eye contact requires you to have the story you are telling thoroughly internalized.

It doesn’t work when you still think: “What’s next?”

It also doesn’t work from a word-for-word memory of the story.

Eye contact in storytelling is not for everybody

For many people on the autistic spectrum (prolonged), eye contact is very difficult. When they are telling their stories, much of the advice about eye contact does not help them at all.

And what do you think of the listeners who look away when you try to make eye contact? Or those who never seem to look at you?

Well, when somebody prefers no eye contact, that’s fine—it’s not a big deal. Don’t try to force something; just gently connect with somebody else. Usually, they are very much enjoying the story, and the eye contact distracts them from that.

8 Tips for Better Eye Contact in Storytelling

1. Make sure people can see your eyes and you can see theirs

Remove your sunglasses. Make sure you are in the light, and people can see you. Make sure you can see your listeners.

For storytelling, it is usually better to have some light on the audience, even when you are in a theater. Ask for it beforehand.

2. Start your story by making eye contact

When people see you, they first have to get used to you a little. So don’t rush into talking, but pause, take a breath, and look around. Make eye contact with a couple of people.

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3. Make eye contact with soft, gentle eyes

It is not a stare-down. You cannot force people to listen. You can only invite them.

So smile behind your eyes. Relax them. Make sure you still can see things in the corners of your eyes. Keep a broad view of your audience and focus gently instead of piercing into one of them.

4. Tell each sentence to a different listener

When you are learning to be more in eye contact, it can help you to tell each sentence to a different listener. That part of the story, you tell especially to him or her. After a while, this will become second nature and you will do it automatically.

Why a sentence? You need 3-5 seconds to connect. Usually, a sentence has that same length. When you stay too long with a listener, it might become uncomfortable.

5. Be open to receive something back from each listener

People might smile, frown, or nod when you connect with them. They give you something back.

Don’t go to that place in your head where you sit down and analyze the reactions. Just accept whatever you get back and move to the next person. It will work its way into your telling.

6. Make sure you connect to all your listeners in a natural way

People to the left, the right, and in the middle. The front and the back. Be aware to pay attention to everybody.

However, you are not watching ping-pong. Neither are you going around and around on a racetrack. Keep it natural.

7. When you need it, go back to friendly eyes

Usually, you have at least one or two very supportive listeners. When you look into their eyes, they give you energy back.

They are the persons to go back to when some doubts come up in your head. And especially when you have just unsuccessfully tried to connect to some others.

8. When you feel you have lost the connection, slow down

Some parts of your story might need more speed and energy than other parts. However, when you are rushing through the story, you will also be rushing the eye contact. And that does not work.

So, when you feel disconnected, slow down. Take the time to build up the eye contact again and see what your listeners are giving you back.

How to make eye contact with a big audience

With bigger audiences, it is not possible to connect to each individual.

No problem. Make sure you connect to individuals from all places in the audience. Left, right, middle, front, back, etc.

When you truly connect with somebody, the people sitting next to them in a big audience will feel as if you connected also with them.

Speaking Circles & Relational Presence

Lee Glickstein

Some people who gave words to many of the things discussed in this blog are Lee Glickstein and Doreen Hamilton.

Lee Glickstein is the founder of Speaking Circles. You can find some short clips of him on Youtube.

He developed the method of Speaking Circles to deal with his own anxiety in public speaking. The core of his method is ‘Relational Presence’: to be present in eye contact, in relationship with one other person.

You are not speaking to a big group, but to one individual, and then to the next individual, and the next and…

If you are interested to learn more about Relational Presence and eye contact, I recommend two books:

Cultural differences in eye contact

Eye contact is not the same in every culture.

This article has been written from an American and European perspective. Make sure that when you tell a story in a culture you are not familiar with, you inform yourself. What are the cultural norms in that country?

For example: In some Arabic countries it is inappropriate for men and women to look each other in the eye.

From conscious practicing to unconscious mastery

Good eye contact in storytelling is a skill. That means you can practice it and become better at it.

However, the goal of practicing something is not that you will be practicing it forever. Take time to grow in connection to your listeners.

And at some point, forget about it.

Photo credits: Pixabay

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