Eye contact, public speaking and the case of President Zuma’s dark glasses

Having just watched Jacob Zuma being sworn in as South Africa’ new president (HERE), I was reminded of the importance of eye contact in holding the attention of an audience.

It wasn’t so much that he hardly looked up from the text, which was excusable given that the importance of getting the words right when reading out an oath, as the fact that he was wearing dark glasses at all.

Readers of my books will know that I regard some of the widely circulating claims about body language and non-verbal communication as being at best over-stated, and at worst false (e.g. see Lend Me Your Ears, Chapter 11). But eye-contact is definitely not one of these.

In fact, here’s what I wrote about the subject twenty-five years ago that bears on the case of President Zuma'a dark glasses:

‘.. humans are the only primate species in which the irises are framed by visible areas of whiteness, and it is generally considered that the evolutionary significance of this has to do with the communicative importance of our eyes: the whites of the eyes make it relatively easy for people to track even slight movements over quite large distances. An illustration of the importance of eye visibility for holding the attention of an audience is provided by an anecdote in the autobiography of the Oxford philosopher, A.J. Ayer (Part of My Life, 1977). He reports that, after sustaining a black eye as a result of bumping into a lamp post during a wartime blackout, he took to wearing dark glasses. He goes on to say that he subsequently found when lecturing in them that it was quite impossible to hold the attention of an audience. Given his reputation as an effective speaker, this suggests that the invisibility of a person's eyes can seriously interfere with his ability to communicate with an audience. It may therefore be no coincidence that there have been very few great orators who have worn spectacles, even with plain glass in them, when making speeches.’ (Our Masters’ Voices, 1984, pp.89-90).

There’s much more on why eye-contact is so important for effective public speaking in Lend Me Your Ears (pp.36-43), but an additional point about President Zuma’s choice of dark glasses is that it tends to make him look more like a South American dictator than a democratically elected president, an implicit association that he would presumably be quite keen to avoid.

All of which is to say that, if I were advising him, I’d definitely tell him to get some new glasses.

I'd also suggest that his aides should pay a bit more attention to camera angles and back-drops, because there's someone just behind him wearing a black bowler hat, the brim of which at times pokes out from the sides of the president's head - a seemingly trivial point perhaps, but I bet I'm not the only viewer who found it distracting.

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