How to Use Eye Contact to Succeed in the Business World
August 5, 2019
If you make too much eye contact you might come across as rude or aggressive; too little, you’re timid, anxious, or insincere. Eye contact carries immense connotations in business or formal situations.
In one study out of Stanford, investors judged CEOs giving IPO roadshow presentations for their competence in as little as 30 seconds. Those perceptions were formed rapidly and unconsciously, and were greatly influenced by nonverbal impressions, most notably the CEO’s “eye gaze”. CEOs perceived as more competent during their presentations unsurprisingly took firms public with higher market valuations.
Eye contact, if properly harnessed, is a powerful tool to unlock success in the professional world.
That’s partly because eye contact produces a strong, subconscious connection between people. The more eye contact, the closer one feels to the person or people one is presenting to, and the more competent, trustworthy, and attractive those people perceive one to be.
Here are some rules of thumb for eye contact in professional settings. These apply whether you’re the one speaking, or the one listening. In both cases, maintaining good eye contact is about showing respect for the other person.
How to do it
Look at your listeners from start to finish
Establish eye contact as you enter a room or social situation. Establish eye contact with eyes, not foreheads. Turn your body toward your listener. If your abdomen is facing the listener, your eyes will follow. Reading notes or slides is ok, but when you’re delivering content, maintain eye contact and show the listener you have confidence in what you are saying.
Establish eye contact with individuals
When possible, even if speaking to a large audience, establish eye contact with individuals. Make them feel you’re speaking to them individually. You can do this randomly rather than linearly. If roaming the stage with your feet helps you roam the audience with your eyes, do so.
Maintain eye contact for 2-3 seconds
When speaking to an audience and gazing at individuals, maintain eye contact for 2-3 seconds. Anything less feels like a disinterested glance; anything more makes the person feel uncomfortable. Professor Ronald J. Placone at CMU’s Tepper School of Business suggests practicing eye contact in your room or office. Practice looking at different objects in your room for 2-3 seconds, then move on to another. This way the 2-3 second look comes second nature while you present.
Mind cultural differences
Obviously, eye contact depends on much on culture and context. While European countries have similar etiquette as the US, in many African, Asian, and Latin American cultures, extended eye contact can be seen as disrespectful or a challenge to authority. And in some cultures, notably in Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries, extended eye contact between the sexes is considered inappropriate. Be aware of the social setting and local customs, and adapt accordingly.
Be consistent in your gaze, not fragmented; otherwise you appear nervous or distracted. Also control your blink rate—we tend to blink more when we’re under stress.