You’ll notice that the characters on some of our favorite cereal boxes that many of us have grown up with such as Fred Flintstone’s Fruity pebbles, Tony the Tiger (Kelloggs Frosted Flakes) and the Trix Rabbit all have one thing in common. They’re all looking straight at us.
You’ll also find this common phenomenon with other popular products like Aunt Jemima’s maple syrup , Quaker oats and the Sun-maid raisin girl. And there’s a very good reason for this, which may have more do with our subconscious craving for eye contact than with the actual taste of the products themselves. Corporate America knows this and that’s why they’ve put a lot of money behind their packaging because they know that great eye contact is also great for big business.
In fact, in April of 2014, a study called “Eyes in the Aisles” was published in the Journal of Environment and Behavior, where researchers at Cornell University manipulated the gaze of the cartoon rabbit on Trix cereal boxes and found that adult subjects were more likely to choose Trix over competing brands If the rabbit was looking at them rather than away.
The study went even further, and this may even shock you – especially if you’re a parent. From their research, they found that the eyes of characters on boxes of cereal marketed to kids were directed downward, and can meet the upward gaze of children walking through the grocery store aisles.
This study conducted in 2014 by the researchers at Cornell University was actually preceded by another study done by noted biopsychologist Eckhard Hess back in the 70’s at the University of Chicago. Hess was quoted as saying “The pupil is the body’s natural lie detector and a type of window to the brain.”
Studies that Hess had conducted back then proved that the power of the eyes is undeniable and all emotional states are filtered through them – there are sad eyes, happy eyes, angry eyes, piercing eyes, and even bedroom eyes. Hess also claimed that the pupils work independently of our conscious control.
Hess said that our emotional states come across in our eyes and can be picked up by those we interact with. The pupil size is affected by one’s emotion – if you are excited, your pupils can dilate up to four times. if you are experiencing anger or another negative emotions, your pupils shrink in size.
These discoveries made by Hess in the seventies were successfully applied by corporations as an effective way of increasing sales of products, such as cosmetics, clothing and hair. This was achieved by altering photos of models to make the pupil area larger which, in turn, produced more sales.
As you can see, corporate America will go quite far to get our attention! And whether you agree with their marketing tactics or not, the bottom line is that corporate America knows that eye contact is critical when connecting and selling to their audience and so should we. And when it comes to speaking and presenting we need to take a cue from “big business,” because connecting and selling is exactly what we do when we take the stage.
When you are in speaking your are in sales
Whether we want our audience to buy into an idea, a vision, a product, or a service, we are selling them on something. And eye contact is a big part of that process. If you want to come off as authentic and trustworthy with your audience you need to make solid eye contact with them. And the lack thereof, will make you be perceived by your audience as inattentive and untrustworthy.
Even in the world of business where a lot of selling is done over the phone, most business deals of significant value still have to happen person-to-person, eye-to-eye, and sealed with a handshake. Why is this? Because eye contact conveys trust, confidence, and connection.
When we tell the significant people in our lives that we love and care about them, we do it not only by the tone of our voice, but we do it by looking them in the eye because our eyes don’t lie and our emotions are filtered through them.
Eye contact is so powerful that it can even cut through a crowded room of people where two strangers on opposite sides meet each other’s gaze and become magnetized with laser focused connection, and without even uttering a single word they know that “love is in the air.” Nothing needs to be said, because their eyes do all the talking.
Taking it to the Stage
Most of us already know how to make eye contact with people that we interact with in our daily lives. Whether it’s with our kids, our co-workers, our friends, or our lovers, we make eye contact and we do it well. It’s because our “humanness” has made us that way and we’ve become experts at it. We crave connection and we do it with our eyes.
However, the problem for many speakers begins as soon as they take the stage, and the great eye contact that they were able to convey just minutes before getting up to the podium gets thrown out the window along with the connection with their audience. For most, this happens because when they take the stage their confidence suddenly shifts and they begin to lose their “sense of self” – and their personality isn’t the same anymore.
A number of years ago, I had created a term for this phenomenon, and I called it “Stage Personality Disorder.” This happens when your offstage personality doesn’t match your on stage personality.
My creation of this term came from years of observing many speaker over the years. I would see speakers whom had vibrant personalities while socializing during breakfast, luncheons, or during the cocktail hour just minutes prior to taking the stage, and whom suddenly became stiff and monotonous as soon as they uttered the first words of their speech.
It was like watching two different people with two different personalities. And unfortunately, when ones confidence begins to go downhill when taking the stage great eye contact is usually one of the first thing to go along with it.
The good news however, is that there a number of sure-fire ways to quickly increase your confidence as a speaker which would result in greater eye contact with your audience with every speech that you give.
1. Know your speech well
This seems like a no-brainer, but from coaching thousands of speakers over the years one of the pitfalls that I often encounter is the sheer lack of preparation for ones speech. Many of my clients decide to come to me sometimes with just a week or two ahead of a high- stakes presentation. And luckily with intensive coaching we’re able get the job done.
This issue of ‘the preparation gap’ is even common among CEO’s and top executives and often the presentation is the last thing that they work on when it should really be their first. In fact, a 2010 survey conducted among executives found this startling fact. Over 86 percent of those surveyed said that communicating clearly impacts their career and incomes, but yet, only 25 percent put more than 2 hours into a very high-stakes presentation. Clearly there is a “preparation gap” here.
As you can see there’s a reason why I listed “know your speech well” as first on the list. It’s because this is the number one issue that I believe that speakers face with not being able to speak confidently. They simply do not know their speech well.
And when you do not know your speech well, you are not yourself. You become nervous and tense, and when you’re nervous, your mental focus goes inward instead of outward to your audience. When that happens, your confidence drops along with great eye contact with your audience.
2. Speak to one but look to all
Craig Valentine the 1999 World Champion of Public Speaking coined the phrase “speak to one but look to all.” Too many speakers feel like when they are up on stage delivering a speech, that they are “speaking to all,” but instead they should be thinking that they are just having a one-on-one conversation with each individual in their audience.
Feeling like you are “speaking to all” not only puts that extra pressure on you, but also takes away that sense of one-to-one communication with your audience. When you start to gravitate towards the mindset of “speak to one but look to all,” then your eye contact on stage with your audience will become much more easy and natural for you and you will meet the gaze of your audience as if you’re just having individual conversations.
3. Get more time on stage
One of my Improv teachers said it best when one of our classmates asked, “How do you get good at improv? ” and everyone thought he would say ‘Well you have to read these books, learn those techniques, take these classes etc..’ But what he instead said was, ‘reading the books, taking the classes are great, but it won’t make you a great improviser’.”
He went on to say, “that being a great improviser really boils down to the hundreds and hundreds of hours of repetitions of scenes that you do. The more repetitions you do, the better you will be at improv.” And he was right. Because the biggest challenge that improvisers face is this; being stuck in your head “thinking” about doing the scene instead of “doing the scene.”
And this is exactly the same problem that speakers face. The more time and repetition you get in front of all kinds of audience the less you will be stuck in your head focusing your attention inwardly thinking about yourself and how you’re being perceived.
The more stage time you get, the more comfortable you will be on stage . And when you are more comfortable on stage, the more in tune you will be with your audience and as a result you will have more confidence as a speaker and make greater eye contact with your audience.
4. Acquire the tools of speaking
The reason why developing the art of speaking is listed last, is simply because the other three that had preceded this are not about learning new techniques, but are instead about your ‘psychological process’ which can easily be implemented by just changing you perception and actions when it comes to speaking.
Picking up the Art of Speaking is a process and takes more time to acquire. It isn’t a ‘quick fix’ as the other three listed here are. This is why I had developed my 52 Presentation Tips audio program around the idea of ‘incremental development.’
With developing the art of speaking, you will also have an overall greater sense of confidence which in-turn will also help translate into better eye contact with your audience. In addition, there are also speaking techniques that you can pickup which are also specifically targeted towards eye contact. In fact, there are techniques, do’s, don’ts and processes related to making eye contact with your audience when you are using notes, when you are using power point, and even when you are on a big stage in front of thousands of people.
As you can see, eye contact is “big business” and is a critical component to authentically building likability, trust, and selling your message to your audience.
When you combine all these processes; Knowing your speech well, increased stage time, seeing you audience as individuals, as well as acquiring the tools of speaking, you will develop greater confidence as a speaker and eye contact will be something that will become so natural for you.
You will notice that the great eye contact that you had done your entire life with those around you in your daily interactions, you will seamlessly be able to take with you to the stage. You will never have to think about whether you are doing it right or wrong. Eye contact with your audience will become such a natural part of your speaking experience that you won’t ever have to “bat an eye” over it!