Presentation lessons from Citizen Kane
MD's provocative presentation at health symposium

Eye gaze and the power of faces

Face_mars We have evolved to be amazingly good at seeing faces. From the point of view of evolution, success would certainly have favored those who were good at spotting the faces of a predator in the brush, for example. We see faces everywhere. We are so good at spotting faces that we even see them where they do not exist. In fact, said Carl Sagan, "As an inadvertent side effect, the pattern-recognition machinery in our brains is so efficient in extracting a face from a clutter of other detail that we sometimes see faces where there are none." This would explain why people see an image of Mother Teresa in a cheese sandwich or a face on Mars. (More fantastic examples of "faces.") Faces—and things approximating images of faces — get our attention. Graphic designers and marketers know this very well, which is why you so often see faces in various forms of marketing communication.

Garr_3   TED_Garr
Above: We are wired to see faces. Even babies take note of faces and eye gaze and pay special notice to those faces that are familiar. During my live TEDxTokyo talk streamed back home in our kitchen my daughter notices a relatively small, low resolution 2-D video of her father. At only 13-months she knew who that was on screen and was glued to the imagery, often pointing and shouting "dada!"

In a sea of clutter, a face can stick out. Notice how the image of Bob Marley gets your attention even though it is relatively tiny. In this case it is the only face; in a se
a of faces it may receive less attention.

Eye gaze
When I was a small boy, my mischievous friends and I would sometimes stand in front of our house and look up high in the sky as if we saw something interesting just to see how many passer-bys would also look up in the sky. Most people who saw us did of course look up trying to figure out what we were looking at. We are naturally drawn to look in the directions which other people are looking. I noticed that even my baby daughter looks in the direction I am looking; this tendency started at an early age.

Using images of faces — even non-human faces — can be effective for getting a viewer's attention. This is especially true for mediums such as posters, magazines, and billboards, but can be applied to multimedia and large screen displays as well. Because images of faces are so effective at getting the eye's attention, they must be used with discretion. One important consideration is the issue of eye gaze and leading the eye of the viewer. For example, the two images below are from a study by James Breeze which used eye tracking software to determine if the direction the baby looked on screen influenced the eye gaze of the website readers. Not surprisingly the text on the right got more attention from the eyes when the baby's eye gaze was in that direction.

Baby_1  Baby_2
Above: One small eye tracking study shows the influence of eye gaze in guiding the viewer's eye on the page. (Click for larger size. Source.)

Should you use images of faces in presentations? That's up to you. My point is not to say that you should use images of people (or animals, etc) in your visuals; each context and topic is different. My point is only to say that if you do, be mindful of the power that images of faces have for getting attention and try to use eye gaze to help guide the viewer's eye. Below are some examples. I'll first look at samples from posters and billboards near my home in Nara, Japan, then I'll show some samples slides.

Samples from the world around us
I have said it a millions times, but if you take note of the graphic design around you, you'll find there are many lessons. Here are just a few below.
Above: Speeding down the freeway in Osaka. The billboard gets your attention and must be understood in a flash. Face looks in direction of the text and product (and the road ahead).

Poster_1  Poster_2
The women in these posters are placed on the outer third and look or orientate themselves in the general direction of the ad copy or smaller product image

Beer ad  Beer2
Above: Left: The image of the celebrity is huge and gets your attention. Her gaze is not in the direction of the product or the ad copy, but to counter this everything except the beer is in black & white which makes the beer glass pop out at you. You notice the face first, but the bright color of the beer draws your eye. Right: Faces get your attention, but your eye is quickly drawn to the text and colorful beer cans.

Sample slides
I use images of people sparingly, but I often use the image of the individual who I am quoting in a slide. This makes the message more real somewhow and can add a bit of context. Also, many audience members know the face but not the name of the person quoted.

Jazz_drum.004  Jfk.106
Above: Both famous men in these slides are looking in the general direction of the quote. You notice the face first, but your eye natually moves to the text.

Faces_3.006  Faces_3.005
Above: Here I am quoting Isabel Allende (see her TED talk). The slide on the right makes better use of eye gaze. The image is more natural as well since it is not cut but naturally bleeds off the right side.

Faces_3.008  Faces_3.007
Above: The slide on the left is acceptable, but notice how much more natural the slide on the right feels when the face of O-Sensei is orientated inward toward the bulk of the slide and in the general direction of the text.

Interview_dalai  Dalai_lama.001
This is an image of Judit Kawaguchi (who writes for the Japan Times, among other things) interviewing The Dalai Lama on the Shinkansen in Japan. The quote which appears in the slide is something he said during that actual interview on the train. The first slide shows the context, then the second slide fades in which results in Judit Kawaguchi fading out and being replaced by the text; the right third of the slide (The Dalai Lama) never appears to change.

Not only human faces
We notice faces of all kinds. Even the orientation of animals in a frame can help guide the viewer's eye. Here are a couple more examples of quotes in slides, this time with birds.

The context in this case was the oil spill last year in a presentation on general environmental issues.


Bird2   Bird4.013
Above: The broader theme the speaker was touching on related to personal freedom and fulfillment, so the image of a bird soaring high — an image I took myself while visiting the Oregon Coast — seemed fitting. The bird gets your attention and its orientation, shape, and impression of movement upward (not actual animation of course) lead your eye toward the text. The image of the bird almost acts as a big arrow saying "look here."

Related Links
Faces, Faces Everywhere, New York Times
Pictures of faces that are not really faces
You look where they look
TED Talk: Michael Shermer on strange beliefs (including why we see faces everywhere).
• I have a section on Eye Gaze and faces in the 3rd edition of Presentation Zen. 




Do you have any comment to make about the difference between the gaze in direction to a text on right and to a text on left ?

It seems that having the image on right makes it harder to read since you are tempted to look at the picture (since you read left to right) and are forced back to the text by the direction of the gaze.

what might be the reasons to block the eye movement that way ?


Really liked the comparisons you presented on this post.

I was wondering if there a book on natural objects reflecting basic shapes. (like the bird example)

I find that when I create slides/graphs that use basic shapes (bars, circles) resonate better for people I'm communicating with. It would be nice to push one level higher using shapes of animals and nature.


Hi Garr,

This was an extraordinary inspiring lesson to get new ideas.

Thank you so much!



I wonder, does the expression on the face have an impact? What about if the person is pointing with their hand? I'm thinking that once the readers attention has been grabbed then you can use these other traits to direct that attention?


sensei, your observations are simple and yet wise. thank you.

a observation I would make is that one should take care in simple reflection of the images such as O-Sensei. To do so changes the face, that which makes us immediately identifiable, particularly for those close to us or for those very well known. very few of us are perfectly symmetrical and such image manipulation renders the face incorrectly. this is one reason we often don't like photographs of ourself; the image we personally see most is in a mirror. a photograph is not that mirror image. flipping a picture will move a mole, scars, parting in the hair and importantly "handedness" for a subject seen playing an instrument or writing.

Fred E. Miller

Great information, Garr, and the slides to confirm your lesson on faces and how they should be positioned.

Thanks for the Post!

John Dawson

Dear Garr,
Like many photographers I spot found faces. Flickr of course is full of them.

More importantly I wanted to add the another aspect of the power of faces. I use slides of faces in my trainings. But these are of blank faces - in fact I show my audience - pictures of audiences! Why do I do such a strange thing?
Well, I teach lots of courses about getting past the fear of public speaking. Blank faces in the audience scare presenters - they see boredom, judgment, criticism etc. But when they see pictures of other people's audiences they see that blank faces is just how we listen in groups. So we need to re-think Blank faces so that they become just listening faces.
So how we see the face is incredibly important both on the screen and in front of us.
Thank you for all your work and your blog
all the best

Carrie Swift - public speaking trainer

Interesting article! I have also read a lot on this topic about the power of faces and in particular, eye contact. I too specialise in helping people overcome fear of public speaking, having overcome my own crippling fear of public speaking a few years ago, and one of the things we talk about is why staring at a sea of faces while we're stood on stage can send us into a fight or flight response. It's because our primal brain registers this image as a threat because in our ancestral past it really would have been.. all these eyes on us would most likely mean we were being ostracised from a tribe, or about to be eaten by a pack of wolves! I try to help my clients break their instinctive negative reaction to this image by reconditioning their response so that they no longer register it as a threat:

Thanks for the interesting post!

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