Your eyes are—by far—more important to your presence and persuasive effectiveness than every other tool in your physical inventory, as John Travolta teaches Danny DeVito in this clip from the movie Get Shorty. By themselves, they can convey confidence, enthusiasm, credibility and personal connection.
Research has shown that listeners pay far more attention to the speaker’s eyes than to any other part of the body: 43% of the time, compared to the second-most part, the mouth.
Even without the research, we instinctively know this to be true. To stress the importance of eye contact, think of what people infer about you if you don’t look them in the eyes when you talk to them. They either think you’re ignoring them, you’re lying, or you lack confidence.
There’s a good reason listeners pay so much attention to your eyes: they can be incredibly expressive and brutally honest. They are quite literally windows into your brain as you speak.
Eye contact makes you more persuasive. It’s much easier to ignore someone if they don’t make eye contact, which is why most of us tend to avert our eyes when a panhandler approaches us on the street or people sitting next to a vacant middle seat on Southwest Airlines look away when someone walks down the aisle looking for a place to sit.
It can make you seem more powerful. More powerful people look at people when talking and away while listening. I don’t advocate the latter, but the former will definitely make you seem more dominant.
It can make you more genuine because the eyes can be very expressive of genuine emotion. At least unconsciously, listeners are calibrating the emotional content of your words against the message conveyed by your eyes.
For speakers, the most important point is that eye contact can even make you more credible to people who are not the target of the gaze. Courtroom research shows that witnesses who look at the cross-examining attorney are perceived as more credible with juries. That means that you don’t have to look at everyone to be credible, but you do have to look at someone. People who suffer from presentation jitters are often advised to look over the heads of the audience; this may calm them, but it will suck the credibility right out of their message.
Finally, and just as important, eye contact also helps you maintain your audience focus and awareness. How are they responding? Are they listening, or tuning out? Do they look confused? Do they agree with your message?
With so much riding on your eyes, you can’t leave it to chance. The most important rule is to look your listeners in the eyes when you speak to them. Although that’s obvious, too many presenters violate the rule either out of sheer nervousness or by spending too much time looking at their own slides. Keep your slides uncluttered and make sure you know your material.
To ensure that you keep the visual connection, think of your listeners not as an audience, but as a group of individuals, each of whom is critically important to the success of your presentation. In most sales or internal presentations, the audience will be small enough that it’s realistic to try to make direct eye contact with everyone.
Scan the room, but make sure you look at one person for a second or two and then move on, or you’ll look like a human sprinkler. Your gaze can linger on one person immediately after making an important point, but don’t lock on for more than about two seconds or it can get uncomfortable.
You can also kick up the level of personal engagement by providing “customized eye contact”—when you make a point that is most relevant to a particular person in the room, look directly at that person. Some of the best moments in sales presentations occur when you seem to be momentarily having a private conversation with one person, and you are rewarded with a nod of agreement.
Finally, be aware that it’s possible to err on the side of too much eye contact. There are two likely scenarios where this can happen. The most common mistake salespeople make is to focus too much on the most important person in the room. Since their opinion counts for so much, it’s natural to be more concerned with their reactions, but it can cause you to ignore others in the room. The other problem is to spend too much time monitoring the reactions of the one skeptic or opponent in the room. If it’s not going well, it can make you uncomfortable or throw you off your message. Unless they have veto power over the decision, your eye time would be better invested with the other influencers in the room.
If you’re speaking to a larger audience in a ballroom-type venue, you can mentally divide the room into slices, such as left –middle-right, and then choose a friendly face in each segment to focus on. Sometimes this may not be practical, because when you’re on stage with the lights shining on you the audience may be invisible; just fake it and no one will know.