Manage episode 378022355 series 2950797
Japanese culture is pretty specific about making eye contact with people. In ancient times, a commoner might lose their head if a samurai felt they were making eye contact with them in an arrogant or disrespectful way. Even amongst samurai, in the presence of superiors, you would only raise your eyes to make eye contact when invited to do so, otherwise your right place would be looking down at the floor with your head bowed. Here we are in the modern era and making direct eye contact is still felt to be inappropriate. The guidelines are look at the person’s throat or forehead or chin, but don’t make eye contact. It is thought to be too aggressive and rude, especially if they are older or higher in status than you. Okay, you might not agree with it, but so what, that is how we do things around here.
As a result, I rarely ever see Japanese presenters making conscious, specific eye contact with the people assembled before them. I don’t see too many foreigners doing it either. My old Japanese history Professor at University, had the habit of looking at the joint between the back wall and the ceiling behind us in the lecture theatre and looking there whenever he wasn’t reading from his text. Zero eye contact and engagement with any of us plebs.
Now “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” is ancient wisdom, so should we foreigners blend in with the locals and avoid eye contact with our audiences? Absolutely not! This point can become contentious, but we are mixing up scenarios. Chatting with your colleague, boss or friends while not making eye contact is fine, if that is the appropriate relationship. I had to retrain myself to make eye contact when I went back to Australia after studying here for the first four and half years. I had automatically gotten out of the habit, which was treated with suspicion back home. Why couldn’t I look people in the eye? Was I hiding something or was I a dodgy character you couldn’t trust?
As a presenter, we may be conversational in our delivery, but this isn’t the same as a chat over coffee. We are on stage and we are the person commanding the attention of the room. The formality associated with this speaker scenario is a lot more substantial than chatting together. So we need to make eye contact, because we want to engage our audience.
This audience engagement piece is where a lot of speakers fail. They spray their eye contact equally over the whole ensemble. They give everyone the same degree of eye contact at the precisely same time and in effect, make eye contact with no one in particular. I am looking at you all, so I am making eye contact is the theme. This is fake eye contact. You see it most often with politicians, who try to look like they are at one with the masses, but actually don’t engage with any of them. They dart their eyes left and right, but they are not really looking at anyone.
One of the reasons it is hard to make eye contact is we are not taught how to do so when we are speakers. We just take our cues from the people we see presenting and imagine that must be how we should do it. With a large crowd of people peering up at us this can be confronting and make us self-conscious and nervous. Any plans for looking at people are now out the window, as we mentally retreat in fear. The answer isn’t to look at the crowd as one entity but to look at one person at a time. We need to break the room up into segments. You will have those on the left, those in the middle and those on the right. We can cut this in two and break the venue into those up front and those down the back in the cheap seats. Our aim is to engage as many people as possible and the best way to do that is to cover each of these segments. If we are too predictable, say going from left to right, the audience will realise it and will tune us out. The element of surprise is a good one to keep audiences engaged.
We take one of these segments and then we choose a single person and we make eye contact with them. It is very confusing to look at two things at once, so don’t bother with that. Select one of their eyes and use your two eyes to make eye contact with their one eye. You will find this much easier. We have also removed the fear of having a mass of people looking up at us, because we are only looking at a single person. At a distance, the twenty people sitting around that individual, will think we are looking at them too.
In short order, we can cover a large amount of people in the crowd. We are only engaging with them for around six seconds, so we can cover a lot of ground in a forty-minute speech. In fact, we can make eye contact, one on one, with 400 individuals in that one speech. If we have an audience of fifty people, we can do eight rotations during the forty minute speech and really personalise the occasion.
Why six seconds and why not four or twenty? Burning a hole in someone’s retina by making overly long one-on-one eye contact is a bit creepy, a lot of pressure and feels intrusive. Six seconds gives us enough time to make close contact, personalise what we are saying and yet not be too oppressive for the audience member. Four seconds just isn’t long enough and we meld into the fake eye contact world.
Engaging our audience is what we are after. Making eye contact, with one individual for six seconds is how we do it and we try to interact with as many people in the audience as possible over the course of the talk.