A metaphor-size image of a male splitting his face from his body to see his facial expressions.

Why Eye Contact & Facial Expressions Will Make or Break Your Speech

When it comes to public speaking, we focus a lot on what we are going to say – on the content of the speech. But what we often tend to forget is that what goes unsaid usually speaks the loudest. Our non-verbal communication – our body language, posture, gestures, expressions – speak so much more than we realise!

The non-verbal communication is what truly conveys our message. By improving our understanding of the usage of facial expressions and eye contact, we can make our speech MUCH more impactful and persuasive.

The thing with facial expressions is that many times we don’t realise how stiff we are being. When we talk to someone in person, we naturally use facial expressions without even thinking about it. We laugh, we nod, we smile, we frown, we grind our teeth – and this happens quite subconsciously.

When we go on stage however, our state of mind shifts. We get anxious and those expressions which used to come so naturally…are gone. Because of nervousness or anxiety, our face gets stiff and many people don’t realise this until they see a video recording of themselves later on.

It’s important to be aware of this since knowing how to use facial expressions can really sky rocket your speaking game.

Facial Expressions

Why Facial Expressions are Important

Facial expressions are important to match your content. When you are talking about something positive, a big smile will help deliver your message much more effectively rather than saying a happy sentence with a straight face.

When you’re saying something emotionally upsetting, showing sadness on your face – through a frown, squinted eyes, slow or no body movement – can really drive the message home.

Check out this speech by Josephine Lee – 3rd Place Winner of the 2016 World Championship of Public Speaking. Observe how she uses body language, facial expressions and eye contact to communicate her messaging.

Practicing Facial Expressions

If you had to, how would you control your control facial expressions to become a more effective speaker?

One of the biggest hurdles with people who are afraid of speaking in front of crowds is that their bodies are extremely tight. Our expressions are a huge part of our delivery. If our facial muscles are tight, we lose out on communicating our message with that much more effectiveness. What to do about it?

The Emoji Exercise!

practicing facial expressions

You know those emojis you have on your phone? When you wake up to brush or before going to bed, just make 5-10 of those facial expressions yourself.

Although this may sound absurd, this helps in loosening your facial muscles. If it feels uncomfortable at first, that’s fine…because public speaking is uncomfortable. So, try this exercise out. It only takes a minute per day and might help take your facial expressions to the next level!

A few examples of common emotions we can depict via facial expressions and can be practiced are:

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Surprise
  • Excitement
  • Disgust
  • Fear
  • Confusion

It can seem a little silly to practice facial expressions. We think that as long as we know our content, we’re all set! But knowing when what expression to make with what message can make you deliver your message with much more effectiveness.

Related article: The Secret to Practicing Public Speaking in Your Everyday Life | An Unconventional Guide

Video Recording

After you have loosened your face up a little from the emoji exercise, deliver your speech in front of a camera. Record yourself and watch the video. You’ll be surprised at the glaring errors you’re making without even noticing it!

Related article: The Incredible Impact of Video Recording Yourself While Practicing a Speech

Feedback

Once you have evaluated yourself, get some feedback from a third person. Ask them if your facial expressions are matching the mood of your speech. They will be a much better judge of your expressions since they are looking at your speech from an audience’s perspective

The Importance of Smiling

The Importance of Smiling

Smiling was something that did not come naturally to me on stage. Only after repeated attempts could I deliberately smile on stage. This made a HUGE impact on my speaking.

The audience was far more receptive to my content and liked my speech that much better as well. Smiling is crucial when it comes to public speaking. It’s what makes your audience comfortable. It’s what makes our message more pleasant to listen to. It’s what helps improve the mood of the entire room.

Practice smiling more. Even if it seems forced at first, it’s okay. The more you practice smiling on stage, the more natural it will become. When you write your speech, mark out areas where smiling is appropriate. It will help you to deliberately practice smiling.

Eye contact

Importance of Eye Contact

One simple (but not easy) way to look more authoritative and confident is by maintaining steady eye contact with your audience. Eye contact is what makes you look believable. When you look someone in the eye and speak, they are much more likely to trust you.

When you maintain eye contact, your audience pays attention to you. If you don’t look people in the eye, they are quite likely to not look at you as well. This makes them wander off into their own thoughts and tune you out.

When your audience is looking at you, they are much more engaged and respond with nonverbal gestures – nods, frowns, smiles etc.

Importance of Eye Contact

Credibility: Lack of eye contact makes you look less credible and authoritative. People tend to believe you more when you look straight at them.

Reduced engagement: People are less likely to look at you when you don’t look at them. Maintaining focused eye contact keeps the audience more engaged because they are more likely to look at you when you are looking at them.

Showcasing confidence: Looking someone dead in the eye and talking, shows you are confident in what you are saying. You’re much more likely to persuade the person when they believe that you believe in what you are saying.

How to make eye contact when you’re finding it difficult?

How to make eye contact when you're finding it difficult?

I personally found it very hard to maintain eye contact while speaking. It used to make me forget my speech and make me more nervous. If you’re in the same boat as me, maybe these tips will help:

– Don’t look at your audience directly in the eye, look at them on their forehead or on their nose. This will give the appearance that you are looking the audience in the eye when you’re in reality, not.

– Hold 3 people in the audience you are already familiar with as your “anchors”. That means that you only look at these 3 people throughout your speech. As long as they are sitting at 3 different locations in the venue, it will appear that you are looking at the whole room. Since these are friendly and familiar faces, it will also act as a source of comfort to you while you’re speaking.

– Don’t look at the audience at all. Look at the space in between the audience. If the room is big enough and if there are enough people, no one will know whether you are actually making eye contact or not, but it will definitely appear as though you are.

Related article: 5 Body Language Tips to Command the Stage

But remember, these are just tips to get you started if you are finding keeping eye contact very difficult like I did. Do not stick to these. As time passes, try and look a few audience members in the eyes more deliberately. Slowly, it will become a lot easier!

Eye Contact Exercise

If you have always been uncomfortable making eye contact with people in general, it would be a good idea to start off small. When I found out that I have major difficulty maintaining eye contact, I started off by consciously ensuring that I maintain eye contact with everyone I speak to for a sustained amount of time.

Try this the next time you are speaking to someone: Look them dead in the eye, not in a scary manner, and speak to them casually. You might find it a little awkward at first if you find eye contact really difficult, but over time it gets easier!

If it does not come naturally to you, practicing to maintain eye contact can seem awkward at first. But over time, it can become a powerful habit that makes you a powerful speaker. It’s as important to work on our nonverbal communication as much as it is to work on our verbal communication. At the end of it, your audience will be much more likely to remember what they felt when you spoke, not what you actually spoke; and facial expressions and eye

Hrideep Barot

Hrideep Barot is the founder and chief writer at Frantically Speaking, a portal to help people learn everything about public speaking. The purpose of franticallyspeaking.com is to showcase the lessons that he has learned (and still learning) from his numerous stage experiences and mentors over all these years.