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The Eyes Have It – Use Them to Connect!

A foggy beach walk on Thanksgiving became an opportunity to practice one secret of great presenters: the ability to make eye contact. And I practiced smiling, too!

couple walking at a beach park in the fogWalking at a Seattle beach park at on a foggy Thanksgiving morning, I noticed something different going on and it felt great.  People were looking at me and saying hello.  Some smiled and said, “Happy Thanksgiving”.

Isn’t it strange that this would strike me as so unusual?

After all, it was just eye contact.  A smile.  A simple greeting.  All so basic. And non-intrusive. Yet these relaxed connections with folks at the park changed the quality of my morning.

I decided to try out this practice of greeting people as I walked.  More on this later, but it got me thinking.

Making contact is important in business.  Speakers are told to make eye contact with their audiences.  When I coach teams, I tell introverts that they should make make eye contact with others at meetings to ensure that their presence will be felt.

But as I thought about this, connecting with a large public or meeting-mates seemed like a big stretch for people who don’t greet a fellow walker strolling at a local park.

Of course, some public speakers may like the distance between themselves and their audiences – and making eye contact with an audience may actually feel safer them than greeting someone in a park.  Yet many of my clients are intimidated by this idea of eye contact with their audiences.

I offer them a simple exercise called “see and be seen” where we just walk around and see who else is in the room while we allow others to see us. This exercise helps relax people with the reality that audience members will be looking at them and they will need to look at the eyes of audience members.

simon eyes

 Of course, maybe it doesn’t feel safe to greet strangers in a park.  Maybe you refrain from looking and smiling at someone because you don’t want to send out a message that could be misinterpreted.  This could be useful guidance for walking alone at night in New York City (where I lived for a few years). But maybe not.  Smiles tend to beget smiles.  (Scientists write about mirror neurons that influence how we respond back to people.) Manhattan needs smiles, too.

There are cultures where looking at people may not be OK.  My clients in Japan, tended to keep their eyes down a lot in class, out of respect.

But I live in Seattle – the land of friendly/laid-back people (we’re not quite Portlandia but close enough) and I can’t use my fear of being assaulted in the dark in New York (I was) as my primary excuse for not connecting with folks.

Personally, I think I refrain from eye contact because 1) I’m shy and 2) I get absorbed in myself.

So this morning, I decided to experiment.  I opened up my eyes, let my cheeks lift up into a smile, and looked at people as I passed them on the sidewalk.  Then I greeted them with  “Hi”, “Good Morning” or “Happy Thanksgiving” and monitored the results.  Some responded immediately with a smile, and some said “hello” or “good morning” back to me.  A few seemed startled, but the small smiles on their faces suggested they were pleased.

My results were promising.  I can be shy and still do this!

Of course, I didn’t bat 100%.  That determined jogger in her coordinated teal jogging outfit ran past as if I wasn’t even there.  One or two people just ignored me and a few seemed so absorbed in private internal conversations that they didn’t even look up.beach stroll

I made a mental note that people are going to react differently to my smiles and I can’t take it all personally.  I know that the reaction of a teal-suited jogging machine has nothing to do with me!

After an hour or practicing, my cheeks were getting tired.  But I know that I have to practice, as with any new art, and develop my new eye and smile muscles.  Maybe I need a workshop in smiling and engaging my eyes. I know it could help my presentations.


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