Eye Contact Insight: “Stop” It For More Successful Interviews & Presentations

The CEO was surprised. “I need to look away in order to think,” he noticed during a recent coaching session to prepare for a panel discussion to be video webcast to a global audience.

The executive was referring to his habit of regularly breaking eye contact in order to organize his thoughts while responding to questions during videotaped role-play interviews. The habit made him appear detached and ill at ease, detracting from his credibility and positive perception of his message.

It is a discovery made many times in our work with executives to help them prepare for media interviews, discussion panels and live presentations. With video on the web gaining ground as a corporate communications medium, there’s more and more need for executives to master the medium.

The need to “look away in order to think” is quite common and almost always, in our experience, something that speakers are unaware of until it is pointed out. What we’re talking about is looking away to think often enough so that the breaks in eye contact begin to call attention to themselves.

We are not talking about an occasional break of eye contact during an interview or presentation. In fact, when combined with a well-placed pause before reestablishing, breaking eye contact every now and then can be an effective way to reinforce a key point.

How to break the very common bad habit of constant eye shift?
We like the STOP. rule. Although I don’t like acronyms in general, I think this one is useful. It stands for:

Single Thought One Person – STOP

The technique is simple. What you need to do is make and hold eye contact with your listener through a full thought or idea. Usually, this requires making and maintaining eye contact for several sentences. This might require holding eye contact for 15 or 20 seconds. No problem. Let it happen. Don’t be in a rush.

Yes, this will require the mastery of a new skill: simultaneous thinking, looking at and speaking to a person. At first, it may be awkward. But stick with it. The skill will build and eventually become reflexive.

It’s easiest to implement the STOP rule when you are talking to one person. In fact, we normally make eye contact best when we are speaking to an individual. This is usually because, if we don’t make and maintain eye contact through a full thought or expression, it can be taken as impolite, and most of us don’t want to be perceived that way.

For the most effective eye contact when you’re speaking to a group, all you need to do is transfer the one-on-one S.T.O.P. technique to the room. To do this, mentally divide the room into quadrants, and pick out one person in each quadrant of the room to make and hold eye contact with. As you go through your presentation, transfer your eye contact from quadrant to quadrant, implementing the S.T.O.P. rule with the person in each quadrant you have chosen to speak to as if it was a one-on-one conversation.

Are there cameras involved? Unless you are told to speak to the camera, (in which case you treat the camera like a person) forget it’s in the room. Talk to your interviewer or the panel you are part of person-to-person, “STOPing” all the way.