Most of us have learned from a very young age the importance of eye contact. I remember telling my now twenty-two year old son at the age of about three to look at someone “straight in the eye” when shaking his hand. My direction was translated into a twisted face with one eye tightly squeezed shut while he peered at his new acquaintance through the open eye. Fortunately, we have made progress since.
Every once in a while when conducting sales presentations coaching, someone tells me they had been previously coached to look above the heads of the audience when speaking to a large group. Oh boy…. that is just so wrong on so many levels. I think the rationale for the idea was that if you didn’t actually see the audience members' faces, you would not be nervous. I’ll put that in the file with “imagine your audience is naked.” I am sure the advice was well intentioned, albeit wrong.
In sales, eye contact is critical. We know both from research and our own experience that people who do not “look you in the eye”, or are described as having “shifty eyes”, are perceived as less trustworthy. And of course we know that people rarely buy from people they do not trust.
What you might not realize is there are more reasons why sustained and purposeful eye contact is powerful. Following are three.
1. It helps you to slow down. When you look at one person for three to five seconds, and then move to another and hold eye contact with him for the same period, it will naturally slow your pace and help you to effectively use pauses, allowing the audience to digest your comments. A great way to do this is to stay with one person for one thought and then move to another in the room to share your next thought.
2. It helps with nerves. Holding eye contact for a few seconds with someone (rather than scanning an audience) feels more like a series of one-on-one conversations than a formal presentation to a large audience. Since we have these personal interactions everyday, it feels more comfortable which in turn will help to manage nerves.
3. It encourages interaction with the audience. A speaker who makes and holds eye contact with her audience is actually creating a personal connection with each audience member. This connection holds people's attention and encourages their participation.
Most people in business figure that they wouldn’t be where they are without effective eye contact, and therefore don’t think about it much. My experience is that most of us - no matter how experienced or how senior - can easily improve this important skill just by making a conscious effort to focus on it.
Here's looking at you!