Study: Does Eye Contact Hurt Your Ability To Persuade?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 18, 2014 – 4:02 am

Every public speaking expert I know advises presenters to forge a connection with their audiences by maintaining steady eye contact.

RELATED: FOR HOW MANY SECONDS SHOULD YOU MAKE EYE CONTACT? 

But a highly publicized study published in Psychological Science suggests that eye contact may actually make people “more resistant to persuasion, especially when they already disagree.”

“’There is a lot of cultural lore about the power of eye contact as an influence tool,’ says lead researcher Frances Chen, who conducted the studies at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and is now an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. ‘But our findings show that direct eye contact makes skeptical listeners less likely to change their minds, not more, as previously believed,’ says Chen.

Is she right? And if so, what does it mean for public speakers?

Businesspeople Spying on Each Other

According to the press release about the study, the researchers “…found that the more time participants spent looking at a speaker’s eyes while watching a video, the less persuaded they were by the speaker’s argument.”

Co-lead researcher Julia Minson of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government concluded that, “Whether you’re a politician or a parent, it might be helpful to keep in mind that trying to maintain eye contact may backfire if you’re trying to convince someone who has a different set of beliefs than you,”

But watching a video isn’t the same as being one member of an audience out of many with a live speaker, so I’m not sure the methodology used by the researchers is naturalistic enough to be applied broadly. 

In the research, one viewer looked directly into the eyes of one speaker on a screen, presumably maintaining steady eye contact throughout. But what if that one viewer had been one member of a 50-member audience, during which the speaker gave that viewer a proportional amount of eye contact, meaning during just two percent of the presentation? Would that have the same impact on persuasion?

Eye

There appears to be a lot of conflicting data on this point. According to Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction:

”Research shows that listeners judge speakers who gaze more as more persuasive, informed, truthful, sincere, and credible, and even pictured faces appear more trustworthy when the eyes are showing a direct versus an averted gaze (Wyland & Forgas, 2010). Also, compliance with a request can be enhanced if the requester engages in more gazing within an appropriate range (Gueguen & Jacob, 2002).”

I wouldn’t dismiss the research conducted by Chen and Minson. Perhaps it applies more to one-on-one communication than public speaking. But even then, it’s safe to assume that other factors they didn’t control for—age, gender, and height differences among live speakers, as well as each party’s role in the interaction (e.g. boss/employee, salesperson/prospective customer, two peers)—would also impact the effectiveness of any persuasion attempt. 

This study is interesting, and it’s worth noting. But I wouldn’t advise speakers to change their approach in live presentations based on this research alone.

Note: I asked Dr. Chen to respond to this article, and she kindly sent the following response: 

“Our findings are in fact in line with prior research — in the case where the listener was sympathetic to the speaker’s view (i.e., when the listener expressed agreement with the speaker’s position on a sociopolitical issue before watching the video of the speaker). In those cases, we found that more eye contact was associated with more receptiveness. This direction of effect is consistent with the other research you mentioned.

Our research specifically showed that eye contact could backfire (i.e. lead to less persuasion) in cases where the speaker and listener start out disagreeing about an issue. It’s in this case that we believe that too much eye contact may be perceived as threatening, or as an attempt to dominate.

I do agree with you that the effects of steady one-on-one gaze from a video may not be the same as more “diffuse” gaze from a live speaker to a large audience. We’re currently planning some follow-up studies to address exactly these questions!”

 

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How Much Energy Is Appropriate For Media Interviews?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 3, 2014 – 12:05 am

After concluding on-camera practice interviews with our clients, I often ask them to rate how much energy they thought they had, on a scale of 1 to 10. “Oh, around an eight or nine,” the trainees usually guess. “That was probably a bit over-the-top, right?”

I then ask the other people in the room to rate their colleagues’ energy during the interview. They usually rate it a 4 or 5. The trainee is always shocked.

It turns out we’re not great judges of the amount of energy we convey during media interviews. What feels right to clients in the training room often looks flat on television—which makes sense when you consider that television tends to make people appear more muted than they do in person.

You’ve seen that dynamic play out if you’ve ever sat down in front of your television, watched an entire interview, and completely zoned out—realizing later that you can’t remember a single thing the spokesperson said. It happens all the time, and it’s usually the result of a “blah” spokesperson who doesn’t reach out of the television and grab you.

 

Apple Founder Steve Jobs was known for his energetic delivery.

Apple Founder Steve Jobs was known for his energetic delivery.

 

A media interview delivered without energy is like a steak cooked over low heat: dull, uninspiring, and lacking “sizzle.” Great spokespersons know they need to inject passion and energy into their delivery to fully reach their audience.

Some of our clients get nervous about displaying too much energy or passion during their interviews. They protest that they’re mild mannered or soft-spoken in everyday life and that speaking loudly wouldn’t feel authentic to them. That’s fine. Passionate need not be loud.

But what may feel like yelling to you usually doesn’t come across as yelling to the rest of us. In fact, when I ask trainees to “go bigger” by speaking in a comically loud voice, they’re almost always surprised to find that it goes over great on TV.

Therefore, focus on being the most energetic and passionate version of you. Think about when you’re sitting in your living room with an old friend, reliving memories of your schooldays. You’re probably a bit louder than usual, a little more demonstrative, and a lot more interesting.

In order to bring that more enthusiastic version of yourself out, try speaking 10—15 percent louder. Many people fear that will make them come across with too much volume. And sure, we need to dial back the occasional trainee who goes too far. But that’s rare. The vast majority of the time, spokespersons can hit the gas and be even more energetic.

So don’t hold back. If you care about your topic, make sure the audience can tell just by looking at you.

This is an excerpt from The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview, now available in paperback, for Kindle, and iPad.

 

 


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For How Many Seconds Should You Make Eye Contact?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 9, 2014 – 12:02 am

If you read a few public speaking books, you’ll probably come across conflicting advice about how long you should maintain eye contact with an audience member before moving on to someone else.

Here are a few examples from writers whose insight I respect:

In You Are The Message, Roger Ailes writes: “As you move from small group to small group—or from individual to individual—in the audience, linger for a few seconds.”

On his website “Six Minutes,” public speaking blogger Andrew Dlugan recommends that speakers “Sustain eye contact with someone for a few seconds, then move on.”

In 100 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People, Susan Weinschenk gets slightly more specific: “Spend 2 to 3 seconds looking at one person, then move to another person.”

In Presentation Skills 201, William R. Steele agrees: “Look at someone just long enough that you both feel the connection (two or three seconds) and then move on.

Businesspeople Spying on Each Other

Presentations That Persuade and Motivate, published by the Harvard Business Press, recommends doubling that time: “Make eye contact for five or six seconds with people in the front, left and right, and the back.”

In Speak With Confidence, Dianna Booher dispenses with that approach, advising speakers to focus not on seconds, but on sentences: “Delivering one or two sentences to each person establishes a bond of intimacy with individual listeners.” 

Jerry Weissman’s The Power Presenter has similar advice, but recommends less time-per-person: “Deliver one phrase to that person. Pause. Move to another person and deliver one phrase to that person.”

Who’s Right?

All of the writers above offered similar advice, but with meaningful variations. A few of them noted that although a specific number of seconds (or words) could serve as a helpful general guideline, the  specific amount of time was less important than what happens during the eye contact—a genuine connection between speaker and audience member. I agree with that.

In my experience, giving speakers a specific timeline to follow gets them too far inside their heads. Instead of focusing on being truly in the moment during their presentations, they suddenly find themselves doing mental math: “One second—two-seconds—three seconds—okay, I need to look at a new person now.

The most useful guideline I can offer is this: You shouldn’t say a word unless you’re looking someone in the eye and making a connection with that person. (If there’s any “rule” beyond that, it should be that you don’t dart your eyes so quickly from person to person that you fail to make a connection.) That’s all you have to remember. Don’t talk to the wall, the floor, the ceiling, your notes, your laptop, or the screen projecting your PowerPoint slides. By remembering to speak into someone’s eyes, every word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph you utter will help you forge a meaningful connection.

If, after all of that, you’re still seeking a numerical formula, remember this excellent piece of advice from Andrew Dlugan: “There’s no magic minimum or maximum; you’ll just know.”

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To Show Hands Or Not To Show Hands: That Is The Question

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 26, 2014 – 8:59 pm

Reader Monica Miller Rodgers asks the following question:

“I notice you express your ideas with lots of hand movements (as do I). In media training, though, I have always taught clients to keep their hand movements below the waist to avoid getting gestures in the frame. I teach them to continue using their hands and not to hold them stiffly (then you just get odd shoulder movements), but to keep them low. What is your recommendation for this?”

First, let’s address the biggest downside of allowing gestures in the frame: They can, in some circumstances, be distracting. For example, if someone makes fast gestures, waves their hands near their face, or is wearing stacked bracelets that make noise every time they near the microphone, their gestures can distract the audience and prevent viewers from hearing their words. 

you got to understand that

But in my experience, those moments are not the norm. The vast majority of the time, speakers who gesture normally look more natural, which is the goal. When I’ve asked our trainees to restrict their hand movements, I’ve observed that they usually become duller—both in terms of their energy and their content.

I’ve concluded that asking people not to gesture—or to dramatically change the way they typically gesture—makes them slower of thought. There’s research to back up my conclusion. According to Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Think by Susan Goldin Meadow:

“Gesturing can lighten a speaker’s cognitive load, thus saving effort to expend on other tasks. Moreover, gesturing may even affect the course of thought, making some ideas salient and others not. We may be changing what we think just by moving our hands.”

“Gesture and speech together form a single unified system and, within this system, are coexpressive. Both modalities contribute to a speaker’s intended meaning…Listeners carry out this same synthesis—in the process of speech comprehension, listeners synthesize the information presented in speech and in gesture to form a single unified representation.”

In other words, asking spokespersons to restrain their movements could inhibit both their own thinking and their connection with the audience.

I agree there are times when gestures pose a distraction. But from my perspective, the opposite problem—unnatural stiffness—is the bigger problem of the two. Thanks for your question, Monica!

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Body Language: Why You Should Avoid Othello’s Error

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 3, 2014 – 6:02 am

In Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello is tricked into believing that his wife, Desdemona, cheated on him with his Lieutenant. When he confronts Desdemona, she weeps—a sign, Othello concludes, of her guilt. In a rage, Othello murders her, only to learn shortly thereafter that she hadn’t committed adultery after all. 

Othello made the mistake of assuming that he understood the source of Desdemona’s anguish. He assumed that his wife’s sobs when confronted were a sign of her guilt; he didn’t understand that her grief was rooted not in guilt, but in her knowledge that there was no way to convince her husband of her innocence.

That tragic mistake—what psychologist Paul Ekman dubbed “Othello’s Error”—teaches us that just because someone exhibits an emotion doesn’t mean we understand the root cause. “Emotional signals don’t tell us what brought them forth,” Ekman writes in Emotions Revealed.

 

The Death of Desdemona by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix

The Death of Desdemona by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix

 

As an example, let’s say you’re about to deliver a talk and you’re feeling nervous about the proposal you have to present. You believe that a few people in the room actively oppose your idea, so you’ve prepared rebuttal arguments just to be safe.

During your presentation, you notice a man in the front row—a key decision-maker—who’s furrowing his brow and crossing his arms. He looks unhappy with your proposal, confirming your worst fears.

At the end of your talk, he approaches you to thank you for your talk and ask you a question about how he can follow up with you. “I’m surprised you’re interested,” you say. “I was convinced that you didn’t like my proposal because you looked skeptical.” “Nah,” he says. “My wife tells me I look that way when I’m thinking. I thought your proposal made sense all along.”

That type of scenario happens all the time. And it happens, in part, because we’re conditioned to see that which we expect. According to Dr. Ekman:

“Our emotional state, our attitudes, our expectations, what we want to believe, even what we don’t want to believe can all bias how we interpret an expression or more specifically what we think caused the emotion shown by the expression.”

Emotions Revealed Paul Ekman Book Cover

In other words, if we’re nervous about an audience when presenting, we’re more likely to interpret a man’s “thinking” face as his “disgusted” face. We’re more likely to assume that his seemingly disinterested expression means that we’ve failed to persuade him. We’ve committed Othello’s Error.

Othello’s Error doesn’t mean you should stop trying to read your audiences. You can often glean important clues about their moods and attitudes by remaining attentive to nonverbal cues. But it does suggest that before solidifying any assumption that they’re against you, you should ask a clarifying question instead (“It looks like a lot of people are thinking hard about this proposal. May I ask what you’re thinking about or what questions you might have?”). 

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The Nuns Were Wrong About Your Hands. Here’s Why.

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 19, 2014 – 6:02 am

I occasionally ask audiences whether anyone went to Catholic school. I follow up by asking those who did whether they were ever instructed that it was rude to gesture using their hands. Many of them nod their heads, chuckling at the memory from long ago.

It’s not just nuns (and certainly not all of them) who perpetuated the belief that gesturing with one’s hands is considered undisciplined, undignified, and unrefined. Many of our presentation training clients have been taught the same thing by other presentation trainers (although I know many great trainers who never teach that erroneous advice).

In this post, I’ll strip away the myths about gesture—and share with you what the experts tell us.

Angry Nun with Ruler

Researcher Susan Goldin-Meadow, author of Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Think, tells us that “we have not yet discovered a culture in which speakers do not move their hands as they talk.”

It turns out that gesture is innate. “Even individuals who are blind from birth and have never seen others gesture purposefully move their hands as they talk,” Goldin-Meadow reports. In one study, “the blind group gestured at the same rate as the sighted group.”

Whereas many people once believed that speech and gesture were two different things that could be teased apart, the research suggests otherwise. Goldin-Meadow writes:

“Gesture not only conveys meaning but does so in a manner that is integrated with speech. Several types of evidence lend support to the view that gesture and speech form a single, unified system.”

look at that!

Not convinced yet? In their book Nonverbal Communication In Human Interaction, authors Mark Knapp, Judith Hall, and Terrence G. Horgan report similar findings:

“Gestures help speakers retrieve certain words or describe objects that move as part of their function, and thus serve a greater interpersonal function. Listeners may benefit more from a speaker’s gestures when these gestures add emphasis or clarity to speech, help characterize and make memorable the content of speech, and act as forecasters of forthcoming speech.”

The evidence is clear. Humans speak using their hands. Effective communication depends on it. If any trainers tell you otherwise, throw them out of your office.

There are, of course, some guidelines for the best way to gesture. You can see some of those here.

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Can You Become 56 Percent Better At Presenting–Instantly?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 16, 2013 – 6:02 am

Anyone who’s read a public speaking book or attended a presentation course has likely heard the advice to speak with “open” body language.

Hand gestures are a key part of that advice—and you may be surprised by how much the “little” things matter when it comes to the impression audiences form of you.

Allan and Barbara Pease, authors of The Definitive Book of Body Language, did an interesting experiment. They asked eight lecturers to deliver ten-minute talks to various audiences using three different hand gestures. “We later recorded the attitudes of the participants to each lecturer,” the authors wrote. 

Their findings were dramatic.

Hand Gestures Slide

“We found that the lecturers who mostly used the Palm-Up position received 84 percent positive testimonials from the participants, which dropped to 52 percent when they delivered exactly the same presentation to another audience using mainly the Palm-Down position. The Finger-Pointed position recorded only 28 percent positive audience response and some participants had walked out during the lecture. Finger-pointing not only registered the least amount of positive responses from the listeners; they could also recall less of what the speaker had said.”

That last part is especially striking: Hand gestures not only influenced the audience’s perception of the speaker, but had a direct impact on how much of the speaker’s presentation they remembered.

The Palm-Up position is not only useful during the body of your presentation, but also when taking audience questions. Instead of pointing a finger at an audience member when selecting them to ask a question, use an open palm to indicate that the floor is theirs.

It’s worth noting that there may be better hand gestures in certain situations. For example, speakers wanting to indicate that their stance is non-negotiable may be more effective when using the Palm-Down position. And Joe Navarro, author of What Every Body Is Saying, points out that “steepling” one’s hands is often perceived as a sign of confidence and self-assurance, particularly for women.

Either way, if you tend not to speak using the Palm-Up position, it’s worth experimenting with. No, one study doesn’t give us sufficient data to be able to state that you’ll become 56 percent better just by modifying your hand gestures. But the Pease study is reinforced by many similar body language studies, so it’s not a stretch to believe that you can improve the audience’s perception of you simply by going from being a finger pointer to being a palm-upper.

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The Statistic Communications “Experts” Keep Getting Wrong

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 21, 2013 – 6:02 am

In dozens of books and hundreds of articles, you’ll find media trainers, presentation coaches, and communications experts offering a startling statistic:

Only 7 percent of the way someone forms an impression of you comes from your words! The remaining portion comes from your voice (38 percent) and your body language (55 percent)!

There’s only one problem: Those statistics are wrong. Completely wrong.

Their root comes from a 1960s study by a UCLA professor named Dr. Albert Mehrabian. But Mehrabian never intended for his research to be used—or misused—that way.

 

This slide is fascinating. It’s also completely wrong.

 

Mehrabian’s study was very limited in scope—it looked only at single words, focused solely on positive or negative feelings, and didn’t include men—and yet, I see articles at least once a week touting these numbers as gospel, as if they have much broader implications than they actually do.

Had these communications “experts” taken the time to look at the original research (or simply look at Dr. Mehrabian’s Wikipedia page, which debunks this myth), they wouldn’t have made this mistake. So I can only conclude that communications professionals who use this data are ignorant,  lazy, or willfully misusing this data to sound smarter than they are.

As an example, I came across a video from Stanford Business Professor Deborah Gruenfeld last week. I saw the video because it was a “Sponsored Post” on Twitter. The link led me to a YouTube video, which had this in the video description:

“When people want to make an impression, most think a lot about what they want to say. Stanford Business Professor Deborah Gruenfeld cautions you to think twice about that approach. The factors influencing how people see you are surprising: Words account for 7% of what they take away, while body language counts for 55%.”

Wrong!

In the video, Gruenfeld says:

“When people are forming an impression of you, what you say accounts for only seven percent of what they come away with.”

Wrong! 

Creativity Works, a U.K.-based communications firm, produced this video called “Busting the Mehrabian Myth.” It’s a well-produced (and humorous) video. UPDATE: Several readers have correctly pointed out that this video goes too far in the opposite direction, prioritizing words over delivery. That, too, is wrong — the right balance of words and delivery is highly contextual, and it’s too reductionist to say that one generally matters more than the other.

Have thoughts about body language and the Mehrabian Myth? Please leave them in the comments section below.

The PowerPoint slide in this post comes from the Presentation Zen website; to their credit, they acknowledged that this graphic isn’t quite right.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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