Bizarre, isn't it? Direct eye contact was left behind when we moved our presentations and meetings online.
In almost every screen encounter, when someone speaks to you on screen their eyes drop down to find the picture of you. Okay, yes, your rational mind says they're talking to you. But your eyes say they're not talking to you. That contradiction is significant. Our instincts - built on millions of years of evolution - say, This person is not meeting my eyes. The price is high.
The price is a loss of trust, loss of engagement, and loss of impact of your message.
For full online authority, we must get our eye contact under control. Here's how. In the next few paragraphs, 'camera' means built-in webcam (top of screen), or external webcam (clipped to top of screen and plugged into a USB port), or any external camera plugged into your system.
To every person at the other end, you're now meeting their eyes. It feels weird to do it, because you'll feel that you're not meeting their eyes. It will need practice. I have a small smiley-face right next to my camera . Seriously. It helps me stay focused there.
Not at the same time, of course. Why both? Because as that person speaks to you, you'll need to see their body-language. If you don't, you're relying just on their words - which can be a disaster. But you also need to look at your camera, to show that same person that you're meeting his or her eyes. Which leads to this question: how much time do you spend on their image and how much on your camera?
Once you've taken in the speaker's body language, favour your camera.
My solution is not perfect, but it does give you significantly better contact with online human beings. We all know that online meetings are inferior to in-person meetings, but they are the reality of the age and will be with us long after the pandemic rides out of town.
One more hint. If your app allows, move the image of the person you're speaking to (or listening to) as close as possible to your camera. On Zoom it's simply drag and drop.
I look forward to the day technology embeds my camera in my picture of you.
Let's make it work. Let's be strong on screen.
You open your mouth to start talking and suddenly you're aware that every eyeball in the room is focused directly on you. What do you do with your own eyes? That's a real worry for many who come to my workshops - a big part of their speaker nervousness.
Before we go any further... Have you heard that ancient advice to keep your eyes above the back row? Unhear it. It's rubbish. In fact if you look reluctant to make direct eye contact, you will automatically lose credibility and authority.
The answer is simple.
Look directly into the eyes of individuals
But how long am I supposed to hold eye contact? If I hold it too long they'll think I'm being aggressive! If it's too short my eyes will bounce around like a ball in a pinball machine.
Here's a rule of thumb.
Hold eye contact for between one and two seconds, then shift to someone else.
Don't have a built-in stopwatch? No problem - think of each second as a heartbeat.
Here's the best tip of all.
Every now and then, while speaking, give a small (almost imperceptable) nod - directly into someone's eyes. Do it to every second or third person.
It works because it's as if you're conveying, I want you to get this... and you... and you. Not only does it make them want to listen to you, it conveys believability, authority and presence. And you'll swiftly feel so comfortable meeting peoples' eyes you'll stop worrying about eyes.
But how do I make individual eye contact in very large audiences?
You can't, of course. Instead, look at clumps of people as if each clump is the eyes of one person. Move from clump to clump. It works beautifully; everyone in that clump feels that you are communicating with them personally.
And do make it easy on yourself in advance. Round up a small group of friends or colleagues you trust (three minimum) and tell them you're practising a presentation skills tip and you need their feedback. Are you holding their individual eyes too long? Too short? Does the little nod work for you? Discuss it with them. If they're interested, they may want to try it themselves.
Then, when you try it on a real audience, you will feel engaged. And so will they.
Interested in a workshop to develop your team's presentation skills?