Eye contact is a powerful form of human communication, and our audiences will often make snap judgements about trust and credibility based on how good our eye contact is (or isn’t!).
But there’s a problem with eye contact in online meetings – our ability to judge other people through their eye contact is a mechanism evolved over millions of years to let us know whether someone was a friend or foe. Our evolved instincts aren’t much good though for helping us stare into a computer in a way which is natural and engaging. We often don’t get the ‘body langauge’ cues and responses that we’re so used to in real life.
It’s also easy to forget that the online environment can, strangely, be a more intimate space than the ‘real-world’. Even if you’re speaking to 100 people, each person feels that you’re speaking to them personally, one-to-one.
This can, if you get it right, work to your advantage. Natural, authentic eye contact in online meetings can build rapport and connection more quickly than in ‘real life’ and you can hold eye contact in a way which would be a bit weird and intense if you were actually in the room with someone!
The key skill is painfully simple – you have to look at the lens when you’re talking, not at your own image, notes or slides. I know it feels weird. I know it feels more natural to look at yourself, but remember that your online presence is all about what the audience sees, not about how you feel.
It’s easy to understand this idea, but difficult to remember in real time, so it’s something to practise. The best way to learn this skill is to record yourself a few times while you’re rehearsing (you do rehearse, don’t you?!) your next presentation or pitch.
If you really find it tough, then stick a post-it note next to the camera lens with an arrow pointing to the lens, or a smiley face to remind you where to look. At least two people I know even use an entire piece of paper across the laptop screen, with a tiny hole torn out where the lens is – this means that there’s no possibility of being distracted by anything! This process is a little too much for me, as I like to see other things, such as the chat bar, but it may work for you.
Talk as if you’re speaking to one person – even if you’re speaking to dozens. It will help you to make natural, easy eye contact with the lens, and the audience will feel more of a connection with you.
Am I saying that you have to stare into the lens the entire time you’re online? Of course not, it would be very peculiar! There are many moments, such as taking questions, talking over slides and so on when it’s perfectly fine not to make eye contact with the lens.
In these moments, though you really should be making eye contact:
- Opening remarks (your ‘hook’ if you’re following the method laid out in my book).
- Your main points – anytime when you’re saying phrases such as ‘What I really want to get across today is …’
- Any time when trust and rapport are as important as the message.
- When you are listening (here, it can be easy to forget, because it feel sso natural to stare at the other person’s image, but in fact it feels much better to them if you are looking at the lens – it looks like you are genuinely listening, rather than being distracted.)
- Closing remarks
I hope those quick tips are useful – let me know how you get on!