Law Ruler April 2024
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Public Speaking

Make Eye Contact to Engage Your Listeners

By Marsha Hunter

Every group of listeners — whether a big audience, a small group, a jury or a single senior partner — is a multi-eyed monster that a speaker must confront, eyeball to eyeball. The only way to focus your brain is to focus your eyes on your listeners, and that can be difficult to do because eye contact triggers adrenaline. That famous fight or flight instinct kicks in when you look out at a sea of deadpan expressions gazing back at you.

Since there are a lot of them, and only one of you, the predator (them)-prey (you) response is triggered. In conversation, you might say to a deadpan listener, “Why are you looking at me that way?” But when you are the one speaking in public, you often cannot ask — you can only wonder if everyone is getting your message, often despite their off-putting faces. That’s simply how people look when they are listening. They don’t reveal enough cues to make you confident and comfortable.

How Much Eye Contact Is Enough?

At a recent trial advocacy program, my colleague Brian Johnson and I told a young lawyer, “Since you’ve now done a number of these training programs, your task this year is to look at the jury more often. Include them. Connect with them. Make eye contact with them, not just on openings and closings, but direct and cross, too.”

How much, she asked?

That’s the art.

But we argue that the two extremes are undesirable: Don’t look at them all the time; that would be weird. And avoid never looking their way. That’s even stranger, not to mention rude. Jurors are the most important people in the room, after all.

The young attorney then rather sheepishly confessed, “I have to admit that although I’ve done a number of these mock trial programs, I have never looked at the jury.”

“Never?” Brian asked, as politely as he could. She blushed. “No, it’s too scary and intimidating.”

Show You’re Paying Attention to Them

Watching many different mock trials over the next three days, we became aware that young lawyer wasn’t alone. Almost no one at the program ever looked at the jury. Even during openings and closings, they all talked as much to the carpet and the ceiling as to the jurors.

It happens in real life, too. We visited a lengthy jury trial in Federal District court for an entire afternoon of testimony and not one lawyer or witness ever looked at the jury, which had already been there for a month! Not once, can you imagine?

What would a client say about such behavior? Nobody can make a case for ignoring listeners completely.

So, how much eye contact is the right amount? It is, of course, impossible to quantify, since it is part social skill and part calculated technique. But perhaps the hardest task an audience or jury faces is to pay close attention to people who pay no attention to them.

Consider a natural conversation. How much eye contact do you make with your friends while you are hanging out? Most of us make short but genuine eye contact, including each person, briefly but continually, over the course of any given conversation. Occasionally, we gaze attentively at one person as we make a point, then we shift our gaze to another set of eyes. Sometimes, we stare into the middle distance as we listen, head cocked perhaps, intently absorbing the message. Our eye contact sends an important message to our friends. It says we are paying attention, we are listening.

There is a middle ground between absolutely no eye contact and intense staring at audiences. Two years ago, at the same mock trial program, we worked with an unusually gifted young attorney and suggested the same thing: “Look at them. Make eye contact and connect with your jury.”

Circulating through the many different mock trials, we happened to be in the room while this attorney conducted a direct examination. As he did so, he included the jury. He looked at them periodically — not all the time — and made them part of the experience. The result? Every juror was taking notes. Each person was completely engaged in that direct exam as if they were the most diligent students in an important class.

Look at your listeners. Tend them as you would a garden, with care and attention. If you are speaking in public, remember, it’s about them, not you.

Related: How to Look Them In the Eye — Tip for Making “Quiet Eyes” by Marsha Hunter

Illustration ©

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Marsha Hunter 2020 Marsha Hunter

For more than 30 years, Marsha Hunter was the CEO and a founder of Johnson and Hunter, Inc., with legal clients in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe. Her clients were top ten and top twenty law firms, legal departments at the world’s largest corporations, the United States Department of Justice, and organizations and bar associations from Belfast to Tasmania. Marsha is co-author of “The Articulate Advocate” and “The Articulate Attorney,” her specialty is human factors — the science of human performance in high-stakes environments. Born in Montana and raised in the American West, she lives in New Mexico.

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