The Why and How of Making Eye Contact With a Digital Audience

Author: Casey Gale       

Digital Eye Contact

Seeing eye-to-eye isn’t just a saying, it’s how humans build trust and connections — which can be tricky when presenting onscreen. Simple solutions like placing visual cues around your computer camera can help presenters create the illusion of eye contact with viewers, according learning expert Will Thalheimer.

Whether we’re communicating face-to-face or digitally, good eye contact can make us seem more likeable, attractive, and competent. But achieving eye contact digitally is easier said than done, as it is really only the illusion of eye contact — we can look at the person we’re speaking with onscreen, which means we divert our eyes from the camera, or look at our computer cameras to make others feel we are looking straight at them. But we can’t do both at the same time.

There’s a hack for this, according to Will Thalheimer, Ph.D., principal at TiER1 Performance Solutions and owner of Work-Learning Research Inc. On his YouTube channel, Thalheimer recommends simple solutions like putting visual cues near the camera, such as Post-It notes with bullet points of what you’d like to say, which can help draw the eye in the right direction. Additionally, moving the video of the people you’re speaking with to the top-center of your screen — what he calls the “virtual eye contact area” where your computer camera is located — can create another visual cue. This will stop you from glancing all around the screen in search of faces to connect with while speaking.

Will Thalheimer

Zoom has helpful capabilities when it comes to making good eye contact, Thalheimer shared in a recent Work-Learning Research newsletter. “Zoom is excellent in this regard,” he said, as it enables users to “move the video pictures of people closer to where our webcams are located.” In this instance, Zoom is superior to Microsoft Teams, he said, as the Teams platform forces videos to the bottom of the screen when the user is presenting slides.

Going Off-Camera

Though eye contact can be a powerful tool in connecting with those you’re presenting to, there are some instances when keeping your camera on can become distracting, Thalheimer said in the newsletter. “There aren’t slam-dunk research studies,” he said, “but several studies I’ve seen suggest that adding video thumbnails is likely to make learners like it more, but learn less.”

One study conducted at Stanford University in 2014 and published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that showing the instructor’s face in multimedia instruction “does not promote learning, because the potential benefits from inducing social responses are outweighed by the cost of additional cognitive processing,” according to the abstract. Simply put, viewers can’t pay close attention to both the content and the speaker’s video at the same time.

“People like human connection, so the video adds to that,” Thalheimer wrote. “People also are easily distracted by other people and by moving images, so the thumbnail can detract from mathemagenic attention — attention that gives rise to learning.”

For this reason, presenters should be strategic about when to show their faces and when to allow viewers to focus on the slides alone.

“Don’t show your face when covering complicated content or any content that requires substantial attention,” Thalheimer suggested, but also incorporate periods when you’re able to turn slide sharing off to speak directly to the audience. “They will be more motivated and feel better about you and the learning if you engage with them,” Thalheimer said, “on a more human level (more human than just showing your slides).”

Casey Gale is associate editor at Convene.