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The social nervous system – why eye contact really matters in public speaking



by Daniel Kingsley

The Social Nervous System – Why eye contact really matters in Public Speaking

If you’re speaking in public two of the most important issues are how to feel really at ease in front of any audience and making a real connection with the people you’re speaking to.

Amazingly, there is one simple thing you can do which will have a huge impact in both these areas. That one thing is making eye contact with your audience – provided it’s the right sort of eye contact.

The reason this makes all the difference is explained by the research of Dr Stephen Porges into what he calls the “Social Nervous System”.


The Social Nervous System

Dr Porges’ research looks at on how human beings respond under stress and the factors that are important in calming them down.

His ‘polyvagal theory’ postulates that the body has 2 different defence systems when it is under threat.  The first is the well known ‘fight/flight response’.  The second is the freezing response (think of the animals that “play dead” when being chased by lions).

The fight/flight response is governed by what physiologists call the Sympathetic Nervous System, which prepares the body for rapid action if we are perceived to be under threat. It is this system that gets activated when we find ourselves in a challenging or threatening situation (of which public speaking is a good example for most people).

What Dr Porges has discovered is that there is a set of responses in the body, which he calls the Social Nervous System, which when activated calms down this fight/flight response and makes us feel physically safer and promotes health, growth and restoration.

Not only does it make us feel physically safer, it promotes engagement with other human beings and relationship building.


How does this relate to public speaking?

For a speaker, if you can find a way of activating your Social Nervous System, it will give your body signals that tell it you are safe. Your heart rate will decrease, your body will switch off fight/flight mode and you will have greater access to the the creative functions in your brain (which are, not surprisingly, very useful for public speaking!). Not only that, you will be much more relational, meaning that you will be automatically be able to pay better attention to your audience, picking up on the non-verbal information they are giving you and automatically better able to adjust your delivery in order to build rapport with them.

The effect on audience members is just as important. If you can find a way of activating their Social Nervous System they will feel calm and relaxed. Even more importantly, because this  system is  responsible for  relationship  building, they will also be more likely  to trust you and be  receptive to what  you have to say.


How do we engage the Social Nervous System?

By this stage, you’ve probably recognised that being able to engage the Social Nervous System in yourself and your audience is a Seriously Good Thing for a public speaker, and you may be wondering about the best ways of doing this (although the title of this article may have given you a small clue).

Dr Porges’ research suggests that there are 3 main ways of activating this system. The 3 ways are vocal tone, breathing and eye contact. I’ll write about vocal tone and breathing another time as they are both significant.  For today I’m going to write about what is in my experience often the most important, which is eye contact –  specifically the right sort of eye contact.


What is the right sort of eye contact to make people feel comfortable in Public Speaking?

It will be obvious on a moment’s reflection that not any sort of eye contact will make us feel safe. If someone is staring at us in an aggressive manner, that’s clearly going to have the opposite effect! Similarly, if someone throws us a glance, allows their eyes to touch upon ours, or looks at us suspiciously, again it isn’t going to do the trick.

There is scientific research in the field of interpersonal neurobiology (for instance the work of Dr Daniel Siegel) which suggests that as babies, the gaze of our mother is essential in establishing our baseline for safety in the world. It isn’t a great stretch to see that the closer the quality of gaze we are engaged in is to the sort of gaze we received when we were babies (assuming we received good parenting), the more likely it is to turn on the Social Nervous System that lets our bodies know we are safe.

This has been tested in the arena of Public Speaking by the work of Lee Glickstein, known as Speaking Circles, which he writes about in his book Be Heard Now.  He has had excellent results. His experience is that when speakers make extended eye contact with what he calls “soft available eyes” they feel calm and safe and so do their audience. He has termed this way of being with an audience Relational Presence, emphasising the two-way nature of the way that the speaker is with the audience.


Does it work?

Yes, it really does. Relational Presence using this sort of eye contact is the cornerstone of the way that Millie Baker and I coach public speakers to feel confident in front of any audience, and allow the audience to enter a state where they are receptive to what the speaker has to say, allowing deep rapport to be built. Our experience concurs completely with the science – using extended soft eye contact with an audience is a little thing that makes a big difference to any speaker in any speaking situation.

You don’t need to be coached by us to make this work for you – try this experiment the next time you’re speaking to a group. Make soft eye contact with one person at a time, allowing your eyes to rest with each person for at least 4 seconds before moving on to the next person. Make it real eye contact, allow yourself to see the person you’re looking at and let them see you. Notice how much calmer you feel and the effect it has on those you are speaking to. There’s a lot more to being an excellent public speaker than this, but hopefully you will find yourself starting to build an increasingly effortless rapport with your audience by making this one simple change.

We love feedback on our work and the information we provide, so do let us know how you get on.



Daniel Kingsley
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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. I have always felt that eye contact is critically important in building trust with others and I always appreciate someone with direct eye contact who is focused on being present with me.

    Great points here Daniel. I’d love to be able to share this article further – you need to install the Share This plugin!

    1. Thank you Natalie – I’m glad you liked the article. And thank you for the suggestion to install the Share This plugin, which I’ve now done! I’d be delighted for you to share it.

  2. Sounds intriguing. I too have found that making eye contact for several seconds – and at other times pausing for just as long – really helps to calm the mind. And of course it helps the audience to absorb the message, which is such a rare luxury in this age of death-by-slideware.

    Another technique I’ve used a bit is proposed by Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy in this video:

    I’d be interested to know your opinion.

    1. Thanks Craig. Yes, I’ve spotted Amy’s work and used it successfully myself. We’ll be blogging about this ourselves too shortly. There’s an interesting issue about her “fake it until you become it” message, but I think that anything that helps you be more yourself in front of an audience is a good thing and I don’t think that using those techniques necessarily involve faking at all.

  3. I’m just resuming my speaking career and these articles are extremely useful reminders of effective public speaking. Thank you so much for the time and effort you invest in researching and sharing these with your audience.

    1. Our pleasure Angela! I’m glad you’re finding them helpful. Do check out the videos on our YouTube Channel as well 🙂

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