"Why," a client recently asked, "why do you ECG folks keep telling us to look people in the eye when looking someone in the eye is now being associated—scientifically, I might add—with deceit and lying?" The client broke into a grin and shook his head. "Isn't this eye focus thing just all wrong? I want my audiences to know that I'm telling the truth."
Well, yes and no, we say, our heads bobbling from shake to nod. In various cultures around the world, looking someone in the eye is taken to be a sign of truthfulness. It's not, actually. Many researchers have concluded that a person engaged in lying will maintain steadier eye contact than one who is telling the truth. This is a case in which conventional wisdom triumphs: because so many of us believe that steady eye contact indicates honesty, we look for its presence and interpret it as a signal of honesty.
But the ECG insistence that presenters maintain eye focus sidesteps this issue to emphasize two good reasons for maintaining eye focus. It has to do first with connection and second with performance.
A presenter who expects to hold the attention of his audience must connect with its members. There are many ways to establish and sustain a connection, but the most basic and most effective of these is to maintain eye focus. Thus we work with presenters to do just that, to look straight into the eyes of a listener, to hold the gaze, and then, after ten or fifteen seconds, to look straight into the eyes of another listener in another part of the room. Doing this isn't easy. It takes practice.
But it connects. It lets the audience know you are aware of its presence. The attention of a look draws its members to you and your message. Your gaze is inclusive, allowing you indeed to speak to listeners individually, even when there are many of them. When you practice eye focus, you will see that the person with whom you are sharing that gaze becomes instantly more attentive. So will the others. You become a person speaking to them rather than a speaker talking to a room.
Eye focus also improves your delivery. Most presenters are nervous, fearing that they will forget or mangle their messages. Eye focus calms you and stills some of the anxiety, helping you focus on audience reaction instead of your own. It diverts some of the nervous energy that accompanies performance by concentrating it toward a purpose that matters: engaging your audience.
We've been told by some clients that they have been taught to look just over the heads of their audience toward a back wall while presenting. We don't recommend that approach; if you're in the front of the room looking at a back wall, your audience is going to wonder what is so interesting back there. We've been told by other clients that they have been taught to imagine that their audience is naked. Don't even go there.
Go instead to the eyes of your audience. Look at your listeners, look them in the eye. Notice them. Acknowledge them. Connect. Honestly, it's a good thing to do.