This lesson focusses on one slightly unusual speaking skill, but for me an important one. The idea is that almost invariably the best speakers are speakers who make an appropriate amount of eye contact. There are no rules here – not least because cultures vary – but my own experience is that speakers who fail to make eye contact are poor speakers. That does not mean that they have poor English, it means that they use their English poorly and could use it much better – eye contact is a skill and skills can be learned.
Eye contact in IELTS – does it matter?
There are no marks for it and examiners are trained to mark according to an objective scheme. The examiner may not even look at you much.
If you read on, it can perhaps help you communicate and that’s a good thing! The examiner is in fact quite likely to look at you as you speak. That can help you in different ways in knowing when to speak and when not to.
Eye contact and communication
Examiners are people too
A very large part of communication is non-verbal – using no words at all. If you want to communicate well therefore, it only make sense to pay attention to your non-verbal skills and that includes eye contact. I’d add that typically, we think better of people who make eye contact. I’d add after that that examiners are people too and (subconsciously) are likely to be more impressed by candidates who do the eye contact thing well. You do want to impress the examiner don’t you?
What if I come from somewhere where we make less eye contact?
No problem. it’s important that you use eye contact in a way that makes you feel comfortable. If you do it in an unnatural way, then the chances are you will feel worse and speak worse. What I would say though is that we all make eye contact – it’s just a question of how much and who with. My best suggestion is that you make a similar amount of eye contact with the examiner as you do with your friends.
Eye contact is not staring
To make eye contact is not to keep looking at someone in the eye. How long you look for will depend on where you come from, but 3 seconds is about normal. You may also find that eye contact may mean looking at someone’s face and not directly into their eyes.
A simple practice suggestion here is to practise making eye contact with people you know – without telling them what you are doing. You will soon find out what is an appropriate level of eye contact!
Why you should treat the examiner like a friend
Generally speaking, we use more eye contact with people we are close to. You are more likely to look a friend in the eye than a total stranger. This matters most in cultures such as China where very little eye contact is used by people talking to someone a rank above them – e.g. younger people talking to older people.My suggestion is that in IELTS you should try and see the examiner as your “friend”, not as some godlike being who has your fate and future career in her hands. It’s a good way to think for two reasons:
- typically you speak more confidently with people who are your friends and there is a strong connection between confidence and fluency
- both parts 1 and 2 of the speaking are really modelled on conversations between friends, rather than a formal interview. Part 1 is when you meet someone for the first time and part 2 is when you are talking at length about you and your experiences to someone you already know
Two ways eye contact can help your speaking skills in IELTS
1. Fluency and pausing
Fluency does not mean speak, speak, speak with no pauses. Instead, a fluent speaker is a speaker who knows when and how often to pause. Indeed, pausing is a key part of fluency and using eye contact can help you here.
Very typically when we make eye contact with someone we pause. You say something. You pause a little. You read their eyes. You check they understand. Then you carry on speaking and after a little while you look away. If you can follow this pattern, then your speaking should become more rhythmical.
The tip here is to make some form of eye contact and pause when you complete a thought. Thoughts are sentences and paragraphs and this helps you to speak in sentences and paragraphs and gives you and your listener a little pause before you begin the next thought.
2. Checking meaning
One way we often use eye contact is when we want to check people have understood what we have just said. It’s surprising how much information you can get by reading someone’s eyes – very typically much more than by asking them if they have understood.
In IELTS this matters because the examiners will not use words to tell you whether you are talking nonsense (or complete sense) – subconsciously their eyes may help you though. If you see question marks in their eyes, this is the time you might want to try some rephrasing language such as
“So my main point is….”
“As I was saying….”
Eye contact in the different parts of the exam
Each stage of the speaking test is slightly different – asking you to speak in different ways. This means you need to think about how you apply your speaking skills
Part 1 – the introduce yourself in 12 questions stage
In part 1 the examiner has around 12 questions to ask you in 4 minutes. Part of the skill you need here is to give answers of an appropriate length. Here eye contact can help you. If you maintain some eye contact with the examiner, you are likely to “see” when you have said enough and the examiner wants to ask you another question. This makes it easier for both you and the examiner.
Part 2 and eye contact
In many ways this is the big one. Parts 1 and 3 are quite natural speaking tasks and the chances are that you will behave naturally in them and make a normal amount of eye contact. Part 2 is much less natural. You need to speak for around 2 minutes on a topic you would chat to a friend about – an experience in your life. Here’s my suggestion:
Use your notes and the cue card and make eye contact: For almost all candidates, it is sensible advice to use the cue card to help you organise your talk, to make sure you cover the right points and to remind yourself of words. My advice is that every time you look down at your notes, you should then look up and make some eye contact – however brief. I say this because you are much more likely to speak well if you are feel that you are speaking with someone, rather than making a presentation.
Part 3 – the interview
This is the one part of the test that is really like an interview: you get questions that require you to think. Can you think and speak in English at the same time? It is quite likely that you will pause more often at this stage, the questions need a little time to digest. You should find that you get more thinking time if you also look at the examiner when you are thinking. She can see what you are doing and will likely give you more to think just because she can see in your eyes that you are pausing for thought.
Sites to check out
- wiki-how – How to look people in the eye – a technical guide to a natural process
- Change your thoughts, change your life – some practical tips on improving your eye contact skills in life
- English trainer – one of my favourite sites – full of good advice. There is a clear connection between self-confidence and eye contact. Read her speaking tips. They are all good.