Using Peripheral Vision Impacts your Public Speaking

plotting your imaginary graph

Using your peripheral vision – opening out your vision field to its very edges – is a helpful tool to feel more relaxed, open and ‘spacious’ in front of a group (or indeed whenever you want to feel that way).

How often do you do the opposite?

This is pretty much the opposite of what we commonly do during the day: think about how often we might focus in on the computer screen, T.V., piece of paper, or even when we’re talking to someone.

Why you need to practise

It’s important to practise expanding our vision field, because it’s not an obvious response when we’re speaking to groups! In fact we do the opposite, which is probably to do with our deep-wired connections between distance and safety around an external stressor. When we’re agitated, our field of vision decreases – we become tunnel-visioned – in order to deal with the threat. We tend to look down, too.

What then happens is that we ‘focus in’ even more on our discomfort. This also has the detrimental effect of decreasing eye-contact with our audience, especially people at the outer sides of the group.

Test it out now

Try expanding your vision field now: start to become aware of what’s in the outer reach of your vision; soften your eyes and, if you like, hold your hand in front of your face and gradually move it to the side until you can barely see it anymore. You can probably go further than you think!

How this helps

Deliberately using your peripheral vision is another way of changing your focus, mentally as well as physically.

This can help your speaking in 3 ways:

  1. You feel calmer because your sense of personal space expands; you feel less hemmed in and pressured
  2. You become more externally aware of the room and of your audience (this is a good thing, promise! Keep reading to get more information on why it helps)
  3. These 2 things result in the audience feeling more connected to you

A connecting loop forms between speaker and audience – which is what we’re after.

A psychology experiment

There’s an article by Wray Herbert, found in an old Scientific American magazine, and  entitled Arranging for Serenity     In the article, Herbert talks about an experiment run by Lawrence Williams and John Bargh at Yale to explore the effect on people’s emotions between ordered, open space versus a tighter, more closed-in environment.

The researchers started by ‘priming’ respondents, getting them to plot two points on a graph. Some graphs had points very close together, and in others they were far apart.

They then tested the subjects in different ways to see if a sense of psychological distance or freedom might mute emotional discomfort – i.e. to see if the people who’d plotted the widely spaced graph points were more comfortable than those whose points were close together. Tests included reading an embarrassing or violent passage from a book.

Sure enough, respondents who were primed for less distance (tight, pinched spacing) were more sensitive to threat, more uncomfortable than those who’d been primed to feel more open and spacious by plotting points that were widely spaced.

There were more tests, including a final one where the researchers asked the subjects about the strength of their emotional ties to their families and hometown, and found that those with widely plotted graphs reported having more emotional detachment from even these emotional bonds.


The conclusion was that, unconsciously, the spatial distance between two objects (the dots on the graph) is enough to activate a symbol of distance in the brain, which then shapes our responses to the world.

I don’t know about you, but I find this fascinating! These experiments seem to add to our understanding of why it helps to maintain peripheral vision when we’re feeling stressed.


Next time you’re feeling mentally hemmed in and ‘tight’ in your perspective, try plotting an imaginary graph on the wall ahead of you with the points well spaced out, and see if your sense of freedom and detachment then expands. Or plot a real graph the same way, and then stand up and enter a space, being aware of how you feel as you’re doing it.

Now I’m off to plot my own imaginary graph – give my eyes a break from focusing on the computer screen!

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