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In Western business culture – direct eye contact projects confidence and “honesty”. Not meeting someone’s eye can be seen as being evasive, not confident and even dishonest. It’s as if you “have something to hide”.
It’s a “cultural thing” we grow up with and develop. We subconsciously form judgements on whether we can trust someone or whether we can have confidence in people and what they are saying. Do they look confident? Do they look as if they believe what they are saying?
As an international presentation coach, I get to experience many different cultures.
In some Asian cultures it can be more “respectful” to NOT engage in direct eye contact. It’s more respectful when dealing with more senior people (in age or business status) to have less direct eye contact.
Western business culture has often entered Asian cultures – however I find many Asians from more mature generations can still be uncomfortable in making or receiving direct eye contact.
Some indigenous cultures prefer less direct eye contact too. In Australia, many talented athletes come from Aboriginal or Pacific islander backgrounds and can come across as “shy”. They can find it uncomfortable to be interviewed or to face a camera – yet appearing on camera and being interviewed can be an important part of their “job” as athletes and sportspeople.
I’m a big fan of rugby league and rugby union and when I watch games I often pay special attention to the eye contact in pre-game and post-game interviews.
Folau is so fearless on the field, yet I note ‘a preference to look off to the side” when being interviewed.
Being a “Rugby-loving presentation nerd” I studied several stages of Folau’s interview. Maybe he was just distracted by something happening off to the side – but to me as a viewer he looked uncomfortable holding a direct gaze.
One of my favourite rugby media performers in rugby is 2014 Springbok Captain Jean De Villiers. What do you think his gaze “says”?
Speaking of eye contact – I encourage you to pay attention to how the commentators like Matt White and Matt Burke “include the audience” with their eye contact. They do this by glancing directly at the camera – the audience feels the commentators are looking directly at them.
In my opinion, their eye contact is friendly, comfortable and inclusive. Certainly not the “deer in the headlights” frightened gaze. Sure, the Rugby commentators/hosts are experienced presenters – but we can all improve by borrowing from their style.
So how can you apply this in your business presentations or media appearances?
1. Be aware of your audience’s attitude towards eye contact.
Western audiences and businesses with a Western Business Culture expect and appreciate direct eye contact.
2. If you are from a background that feels less comfortable making direct eye contact, I encourage you to practise until you become more comfortable in making “stronger/more confident eye contact” – especially if you are required to speak or face the cameras.
Record practice presentations or interviews and watch them back and learn how to improve.
Rugby teams constantly watch videos of their own (and rival teams’) playing styles – and learn to improve.
There are many techniques you can use to gradually strengthen your eye contact – or at least appear to have a more direct gaze.
I too have had to refine my eye contact style when I am presenting to Asian audiences who can find direct eye contact TOO direct.
I’ve learned to “broaden and soften my gaze” so I don’t look too directly at individual people.
With experience, you can get a sense of when/if your audience feels uncomfortable and you can soften or broaden your gaze.
If you are a business presenter OR sports person or sports official and you’d like to improve your presenting and especially your eye contact – I’d love to help. If you are a Rugby fan we will get on famously. If you are from a different sport and not a Rugby fan – I will do my best to use sporting examples YOU can enjoy and relate to.
In my journalism career, the most impressive sportspeople/ sports spokespeople I ever worked with were from Rugby Union and Swimming and some Tennis stars. Very professional communicators!
Some organisations realize their people need to improve their communication skills – and I’ve been privileged to have worked with and learned from many great sports people. One thing I am impressed by is their willingness to practise and put in the work/preparation and to take media appearances/presentations seriously.