Of all the body language tips that speaking coaches impart, there’s one MIA: The eyes.
Presenters are trained to rehearse-rehearse-rehearse. Know your content. Use appropriate hand gestures and emphases. Forget the PowerPoint. And train your eyes on a specific spot in the audience.
What’s forgotten today, for speakers and for anyone who communicates at any time, is the importance of the eyes. In U.S. culture, looking down, staring, even a diffident gaze signals a non-listening stance, sometimes to the extent of inauthenticity. That i-behavior can be seen in meetings, during one-on-one conversations, even in small groups.
First, it’s hard to hold a confident and respectful gaze for a longer period of time. [Try it.]
Second, we’re very accustomed to looking here and there – at our laptops, on our smartphones, at the whiteboard … anywhere, but at the chairperson or speaker. Some smart meeting organizers ban technology; it makes for a much more productive event.
Third, because so many of us work virtually or remotely and don’t have to interface with folks every day, we forget. The i-behavior is endemic and irritating, for sure, but how many of us notice it? [Probably because we’re all guilty.]
Why eyes? [We could list all the “eye” quotes, but we’ll spare you.] It’s all about bonding, pure and simple, whether with an audience of 1,500 or during an intimate conversation. To connect emotionally, experts recommend eye contact (without fussing or fidgeting) for 60 to 70 percent of the time an individual’s engaged. Today’s standard – from 30 to 60 percent – is one good reason why communications doesn’t always resonate or persuade.
There is a caveat, of course: Other cultures, other countries consider eye contact rude, unapproachable. The Japanese, for instance, lower their eyes as a gesture of respect when speaking to a superior. Direct gazes are unacceptable in certain Muslim areas.
What eye-habit works everywhere on Earth? Forget the eye rolls.