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  • Writer's pictureKathy O'Brien

Mastering the 80/20 Rule of Eye Contact

If you struggle to use eye contact effectively, you’re in good company. Some people feel direct eye contact is aggressive. You may have cultural associations that suggest one is not allowed to meet the eyes of a different gender or a more senior leader. Maybe you simply don’t know how often to make it, how long to hold it or what effect it’s having on others.

If you are not yet able to command your eye contact to suit your intentions, now is the time to build this competency. Why? Because studies from around the world evidence that eye contact is perceived as an indicator of honesty, sincerity and conviction, particularly in business. When we mean what we say, and we want to ensure the other party gets our meaning, we meet their gaze. That’s why so many important conversations have become face-to-face again post-Covid.

Here are some guidelines for mastering eye contact as a core element of your executive presence.

Eyes Up!

When you present, your eyes should be ‘up’ — that is, looking out at your audience — 80 percent of the time. The remaining 20 percent can be devoted to glancing at your slides or notes, but no more than 20 percent.

Your eyes-up behaviour tells the audience you are speaking to them. You’re looking directly at them to ensure you send the message all the way to the target.

If you read notes or read off your slides, your voice is directed at the paper or the screen, not your audience. Subliminally, the audience becomes an observer more than a receiver.

You might recall times when you looked at your phone while attending a presentation. Why did it feel OK to do this? Because you felt no obligation to stay ‘in the game’. But if the presenter were looking directly at you, you would not break eye contact to pick up your phone. You would feel the psychological contract to remain in listening mode.

When you make eye contact with your audience, you are giving them the psychological obligation to listen to you. This is very subtle. It’s also very effective.

How Long Should I Hold?

You want to hold eye contact long enough to establish a connection with the other person, but not so long that it makes the person uncomfortable.

How do you know when enough is enough?

Body language experts have found six seconds to be a sweet spot for eye contact. A six-second hold makes the other person feel ‘seen’. It’s long enough for you to deliver one thought — a sentence or a clause, enough to make a point. Around the seventh second, it’s time to move your eyes to another audience member.

As you move your gaze among audience members, think of your eye contact as ‘a visit’. Aim to visit many people in the audience — possibly everyone, if the group is fewer than 20 people — at least once during your talk. That goal of ‘visiting’ is a pleasant intention to guide your expression. The six-second guideline will help you gauge the length of your visit.

What If…?

Clients often ask me about potential downsides of making visiting eye contact. Their questions reveal the vulnerability we all feel with this skillset. Indeed, it is a sensitive area, and it deserves sensitivity on the part of the practitioner.

Aim for visits that are long enough to rest your eyes before moving on to another. Moving your eyes too quickly around the room could make you appear nervous or untrustworthy. You want to make a connection in these visits.

If you pay an eye contact visit and the person shows signs of discomfort, stay calm, keep your positive intention, and move on to the next person. You can move on sooner than six seconds. Moving will relieve the audience member of this discomfort, an empathetic move on your part. Don’t distract yourself with analysis of why; maybe this person is simply uncomfortable with eye contact. Do what’s best to build rapport with the audience.

If you are in the middle of a sentence when your six-second mark arrives, stay long enough to finish the thought. A few extra seconds is totally allowable and generally recommended rather than breaking the connection halfway through a point. Six seconds is a guide, not a rule.

If you catch yourself losing control of your behaviour — eyes flitting about, looking at your notes too much or speaking in a karaoke style with the screen — just shift to your desired behaviour. Pause, make an eye contact visit, and get back on track. Don’t indulge in self-criticism at this time for that will only drag your performance down. There will be time for analysis later.

For now, you’ll help yourself the most by getting back on the eye-contact track and making the most of the remainder of your presentation.

Red Shoe coaches help you make deliberate choices in communicating your executive presence. Contact us to learn more.

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