The camera offers no sensory feedback, no human qualities. It doesn’t blink, smile, or give you encouraging feedback as a real-world human interaction would – it’s a machine, tracking, and recording every little facial nuance, thought process, and emotion.
The Precision Stare
Remember the scenes in the original James Cameron Terminator film where the cyborg is finally revealed as an unrelenting metal machine. Red unblinking mechanical eyes stare with a level of intense, cold precision, devoid of expression as the machine relentlessly pursues the terrified Sarah Connor who is desperately fighting and crawling to escape it?
Like the Terminator, the precise, emotionless, cold stare of the camera lens can be equally unsettling to newcomers. It’s accompanied by a level of unnatural intensity that we don’t experience in our day to day human interactions.
The video camera is dominant in this context – because it observes and does not interact with you. This can trigger unconscious low-level feelings of intimidation
Being observed or looked at signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze. Those with permission to “look” directly at people i.e. law enforcement officers are generally more powerful than those who are being looked at. This is a similar power dynamic between the presenter (being looked upon) and the “powerful” filming device (looking at you).
Social norms and cultural conditioning tend to make break off from making sustained eye contact when there is no sensory feedback from the other person.
With on-camera work, actors and TV presenters are trained on how to approach, connect, and engage the lens. Unfortunately, without training in these methods, your poor eye contact or lack thereof can seriously undermine your screen presence and detract from your message.
On-screen…it’s ALL about the Eyes
People respond to your image before you have opened your mouth to speak. The way you hold yourself, your facial expressions, and quality of eye contact all signal whether you are anxious, excited, confident, joyful, sad, angry, surprised, disgusted, fearful, and more.
Our eyes are the key communicators of our thoughts, feelings, desires, motivations, intentions, state of mind, and wellbeing.
Humans have relied on looking into someone’s eyes for thousands of years to get an understanding of how the other person is feeling and whether or not they are telling the truth. Our eyes signal our level of comfort or discomfort. Few things project our emotions as well or as rapidly as the eyes.
Direct, warm eye contact signals confidence and makes your message more persuasive. Every facial nuance, expression, and emotion that is captured within the frame of your filming device is magnified on-screen. This is why we must work to reduce and eliminate any of the following eye-contact pitfalls during your video presentation.
Common Eye Contact Pitfalls to Avoid on Video
1. The “Dead Stare” aka the “Bug-eye”
This is where a presenter appears to be aggressively staring down or boring holes into the camera’s lens. Their eyes unnaturally bulge and show large amounts of whites around the irises. They barely blink, similar to an insect (hence the term bug-eye).
Alternatively, the eyes glaze over, with a tuned-out, dissociated stare as they speak to the lens.
While casting for TV commercials, I’ve observed 1000s of people doing this in auditions and see it in my client coaching sessions. My theory is they are unconsciously “mirroring” back the inanimate stare of the lens.
At an unconscious level, bulging eyes can signal your internal state of tension. To the viewer, this unnatural intensity or “eyeballing” the lens can be interpreted as hostility or confrontational, especially if your message is somewhat controversial. It can put your viewer on guard and feel more defensive. You won’t be persuasive.
Warm, direct eye-contact visually conveys that you are attentive and interested in making a connection with the viewer.
However, there are some types of video presentation formats and messaging that suit don’t overly direct eye contact. And there are others where it’s highly advantageous.
2. The “Blinky”
This is the opposite of the Bug-eye, where the presenter blinks more frequently than normal. When we feel stressed, nervous, or struggling with our emotions the blink rate tends to increase.
Actor Hugh Grant famously uses his eyelid flutter to show his bumbling nervousness or attraction around women in movies like Four Weddings and a Funeral. Pop-star Madonna does this in an extreme manner and sometimes closes her eyes entirely while speaking.
Body language experts say it could be a combination of things. Perhaps feelings of superiority, a way to dismiss someone. Or it could be that the person is feeling social anxiety Or simply not liking the situation they are in or what they see before them.
Either way, an excessive blink rate is typically not an endearing mannerism for your viewer, if you want your message to be taken seriously. More importantly, a high blink rate is a phenomenon commonly associated with lying, which can detract from your message.
3. The “Shifty”
We are hard-wired to pay attention to faces. This means that wherever your face appears on-screen is where your viewer will likely focus their attention. Eye-tracking research shows that we tend to follow the direction of someone’s face and their eye-line if they look away from us.
If your face and more importantly your eye contact is frequently shifting to look off-camera (looking at something your viewer is not privy to) you’ll create a lot of visual distraction.
Frequent eye-shifting signals nervousness or deception. It does not engender confidence.
Instead, practice our 3-second rule.
For more tips and techniques on effective eye contact check out these articles:
Established in 2006 Bianca Te Rito, founder of STEBIAN.com provides an exclusive, consulting service helping business thought leaders, speakers, award-winning authors & VIPs productize their thought leadership and present themselves, their products, services, or brand message to their target audience in the most effective way possible on video. Get the tailored expertise from a real-world operator with over 20 years of TV/Film industry experience working in front of and behind the camera. Learn more about our custom offers here.
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