One of the simplest and most rewarding things I’ve done recently to improve my teaching, presentation, and even reference work has been to improve my eye contact. Yeah, eye contact. It’s that simple. If you don’t come by this skill naturally, or if you’ve been spending a lot of time with your eyes glued to a screen or in a book, read on.
I came across this idea in magician Steve Cohen’s book, Win the Crowd: Unlock the Secrets of Influence, Charisma, and Showmanship. In a chapter called “How to Command a Room,” Cohen states that eye contact is critical to establishing trust and making a connection with an audience. You can read all the instructional design you want, but if you don’t establish trust chances are you won’t be reaching as many students as you could be.
Cohen points out some simple tricks to help with this essential skill:
Fanning the Room. When you walk into a room, start by staring intently at the person sitting in the far right of the room, walking in that direction. Then stop and smoothly turn your head toward the left until you reach the person sitting in the farthest seat on the left. Then smoothly turn your head back to the right, reconnecting with people on that side. You have just made eye contact with everyone in the room.
Use imaginary strings. Pretend that imaginary strings connect your eyes to the eyes of everyone in the room. If you feel the strings sagging, make contact and tighten up the strings.
Reestablish eye contact. If you see an inattentive person, walk toward them and direct your speech and eyes to them. Direct your gaze toward others after the inattentives are brought back on board.
Hold longer than expected. Hold your gaze on specific people for longer than they would expect. Talk to them personally for 10 to 15 seconds. The attention makes them feel important, as if no one else is in the room.
Locate key people. With larger audiences locate key people who are attentive and responsive in different parts of the audience. Shift your gaze from key person to key person. The people around those key people will also feel your attention. Don’t just aim at clusters of people as many speakers do.
Check the other person’s eye color. In one-on-one situations, make an effort to check the color of the other person’s eyes. This simple trick forces you to make eye contact. If you start drifting, remind your self about eye color and check again.
I’ve put these simple techniques to work in my teaching and at the reference desk. I’ve noticed a big improvement in rapport and find myself making deeper connections with students. If you don’t make eye contact instinctively, or you’ve forgotten your eye contact skills, try these out and watch your teaching, presentations, and reference work improve like magic!