A career planning and employment resource for people who are blind or partially sighted

Tips for Improving Your Conversation Skills

​People who are blind or partially sighted rarely have difficulty with speaking per se. Where they may run into difficulty is in knowing when to speak, particularly if they are in a group discussion and don’t have the advantage of picking up on visual cues.  

Another concern is knowing when to stop speaking. Without being able to read the facial expressions and body language of the audience, it can be difficult to know how a message is being received and when the listener has heard enough or is interested in hearing more.

Social and cultural etiquette

Some other speaking challenges that may come up for individuals with vision loss involve social and cultural etiquette. These can include the following:

  • In Western society, for example, it is important for a speaker to look directly at someone with whom he or she is speaking and this can be difficult or impossible for someone with severe vision loss.
  • In some Eastern cultures, it is important for a speaker to look down to show respect toward an elder or someone in authority; however, it will still be important for the speaker to be oriented toward the listener and not be looking elsewhere (away from the speaker so that it appears the individual is looking out a window or up at the sky, for instance).
  • Again, this kind of purposeful eye gaze can be difficult to perform with vision loss and unless an individual knows with whom he or she will be speaking, it may be difficult to judge the other person’s social status or age on voice alone.
  • People tend to speak to children differently than they do to adults and usually speak differently (and about different things) to people with whom they have differing relationships.
  • Each relationship (whether people in the general public, strangers, acquaintances, friends, or those you know intimately) and its resulting conversations require their own etiquette and topics of discussion. It is important that people with vision loss understand these differences and that they are prepared with topics to discuss with all.

Adjusting to your audience

The following tips can help you feel more comfortable when speaking with different people at home, school, work, or in the community:

  • Learn how to listen for people’s voices and orient toward them. If you are blind, others will not expect you to “lock eyeballs!” However, they will expect you to orient toward them when speaking with them.
  • Keep your chin parallel to the floor, unless you are showing respect by casting your gaze downward. Do not look up, around, or behind – if you are speaking with someone in-person, the expectation is that you will orient toward them and pay attention to them.
  • If you are making a presentation to a group for school or business, you’ll want to ensure that your facial expressions and body language match the content of your presentation. Practice what you plan to say and present it first to someone who knows you and with whom you are comfortable so they can give you feedback on your facial expressions and body language.
  • If you plan to use notes in your presentation, make sure that they are unobtrusive (braille or large print notes on standard size paper will be less obtrusive or distracting to the audience than notes on oversized paper). If you can’t read your notes without bringing them right up to your eyes, you will want to memorize your speech and leave the notes at home. If you plan to use a device that will speak to you as you present, be sure that you have an earbud and can follow your notes and deliver your speech fluently. And don’t forget, practice, practice, practice!
  • When making presentations to large groups (say, a room full of people), go early and walk the room – see how large it is, how the seating is arranged, position yourself at the lectern or podium, and have someone give you auditory cues (clap or speak) so that you can get a sense of where the boundaries of the lecturing space are. You’ll want to move your gaze periodically from left to center to right and back again while speaking rather than looking straight ahead only.
  • When trying to get someone’s attention, use phrases like “Excuse me, please” or “Pardon me” or “May I ask a question?”
  • When speaking with people more casually, at work or in the community, consider what you are trying to accomplish. Are you looking for directions or just wanting to chat with someone you find of interest? If you are simply asking for assistance, there’s no need to introduce yourself or give away information about who you are or where you live.
  • You can just say something like, “Excuse me, please, I’m trying to find a bus stop, a store, an address etc. Can you help me?” If the other person helps, thank the person and carry on. If you are at a ballgame or attending a concert, for example, and you think you’d like to chat with someone seated near you or you think you recognize a voice, you might say something like, “Pardon me, have we met? Your voice sounds familiar.”
    If the person confirms that you have met, you can carry on with a conversation about the event you are attending or where you met previously.” If the person indicates that you haven’t met, you have to decide whether to take the conversation further. If you do, a good strategy is to ask an easy question such as, “Do you come to these games or concerts often?” Or, “Are you enjoying the game/ concert?”
  • The key to social interaction is reciprocity – you shouldn’t speak more than the other person and vice versa. A good rule of thumb is to stop yourself if you find you’re speaking for over a minute or two straight and hand the floor over to your conversational partner.
  • If you’re ever unsure about what to say to hand off the conversation to the other person you can always try some of the following phrases: “Do you know what I mean?”, “So, what do you think?”, or “Has that ever happened to you?”
  • In terms of knowing when to enter a conversation, listen for a pause in the flow of a conversation and ask, “May I add something here?” or “Am I to understand that…?”
  • If you are unsure of how a message you are delivering is being received, ask! It’s ok to ask someone, “Does that make sense?" or "Do you know what I mean?” Asking for the listener’s thoughts on whatever topic you’re discussing will help you determine whether you’ve made your points clearly.