One piece of the puzzle: getting eye contact right. Not evasive, not creepy — just right. (Photo: Mr. Theklan)
This is a guest post from Michael Ellsberg, a good friend who’s spent the last several years studying interpersonal persuasion and language (spoken and unspoken).
He has performed hundreds of tests in the field as the creator of Eye Gazing Parties, which resembles speed-dating with no speaking. Elle magazine called his parties “New York’s hottest dating trend,” and for good reason. Having attended one party, I can attest: three minutes of staring into someone’s eyes tells you more about them than ten minutes of talking.
In this post, he deconstructs Bill Clinton’s so-called “reality distortion field” into elements you can practice for business or pleasure. Don’t miss the play-by-play video demonstration…
Enter Michael Ellsberg
I’ve figured out the secret—or at least, a big secret—of Bill Clinton’s legendary charm and face-to-face persuasion.
“I have a friend who has always despised Bill Clinton,” a person at a cocktail party told me during the time I was writing my book about eye contact. “Yet, somehow my friend found himself at a function that Bill Clinton was attending. And, within the swirl of the crowd, he was introduced to Clinton.”
“In that moment, face-to-face, all of my friend’s personal animosity towards Clinton disappeared, in one instant,” my new acquaintance at the party continued. “As they were shaking hands, Clinton made eye contact with my friend in a way so powerful and intimate, my friend felt as though the two of them were the only people in the room.”
Steve Jobs is famous for having a “Reality Distortion Field” (RDF)—an aura of charisma, confidence, and persuasion, in which people report it almost impossible to avoid surrendering to the man and following his will when interacting face-to-face. Well—love his politics or hate them—Clinton is known for an RDF even stronger than Jobs’. Perhaps the strongest in the world.
So, what’s the secret to Clinton’s RDF?
While writing my book, I heard some version of the above story about Clinton not once but three times. So, I Googled “Bill Clinton” and “eye contact.” A number of references to Clinton’s eye powers turned up.
A New York Times Magazine profile near the beginning of his presidency referred to his facility for “making eye contact so deep that recipients sometimes seem mesmerized. Tabloid rumors aside, Clinton embodies the parallels between the seductions of politics and the seductions of sex. As one Clinton watcher said recently: ‘It’s not that Clinton seduces women. It’s that he seduces everyone.’”
A post on the celebrity news blog WENN said, “Actress Gillian Anderson has discovered the secret behind former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s sex appeal—lingering eye contact.”
Anderson (Special Agent Dana Scully on The X-Files) spoke on Late Night With David Letterman of an encounter she had with Clinton several years earlier: “We all, mostly women, lined up. And when he gets to you, he takes your hand and makes eye contact. After he leaves and he moves on to the next person, he looks back at you and seals the deal. When I got home, I expected to have a message from him, and I didn’t. I bet women across America expect it too.”
Is it possible to hack this skill with eye contact? Is it possible to recreate Bill Clinton’s fabled RDF? (At least, the eye contact part?)
Absolutely. In my experience training myself and others, you can become a world-class master of eye contact in about 2 weeks.
How to Go From “Eye Shy” to “Eye Ballsy” In Three Easy Steps
STEP 1: Practice Brief Eye Contact With Strangers
While you walk down the sidewalk (during daylight hours!) look at the eyes of every person walking towards you long enough to see their eye color. Less than a second. Then look away. This is the best technique I know for building solid eye contact skills quickly. In my experience, if the eye contact is brief enough, no one minds at all, and you get tons of practice in.
You can also practice longer eye contact with waiters, salesclerks, cashiers, and other paid service staff, so long as you do it respectfully and in a friendly way.
In all cases, keep a neutral facial expression and soft gaze. You don’t want anyone to think you’re trying to stare them down, rob them, or get them into the sack. If you practice all this for a week or two as you go about your daily business, the quality of your eye contact will become better than most people’s, in a short amount of time.
STEP 2: Learn the Art of Personal Space
You’ve probably experienced bosses or strangers “get up in your face,” and it feels very unpleasant. Bill Clinton and others with RDFs are experts at getting close to you while making you feel totally safe and comfortable. This increases feelings of intimacy, trust, and affinity.
How do they do it? They have mastered the subtle art of personal space. First written about in-depth by anthropologist Edward Hall, our sense of “personal space” is the feeling we get of being “invaded” when someone steps too close.
Interestingly, our sense of personal space is not a pure function of physical proximity; many other psychological factors influence it. In general, your sense of physical proximity with someone increases when they are:
- Making direct eye contact with you
- Facing you directly (as opposed to standing side-by-side looking into the crowd)
- Touching you (i.e., rubbing elbows in a crowd, patting your back, touching your arm or shoulder)
- Raising their voice
- Talking about you (as opposed to a neutral subject)
If a stranger starts doing too many of these at once, your personal space begins to feel violated, and you start having that icky “eww get away from me!” feeling we’ve all experienced with unwelcome conversations at parties.
In contrast, if you learn to modulate these five different factors, and combine them in different ways, you can make your conversation partners feel safe and comfortable while at the same time feeling close and intimate with you.
When you increase eye contact, try leaning back or standing back a little to increase their comfort. When you are physically close because it’s a crowded room, try lowering your voice. When you pat someone on the back or touch their arm as you talk, try standing at an angle, not facing them directly.
By playing with these different factors, cranking some of the dials up as you turn others down, you can create the feeling of being incredibly close, without triggering the “Red Alert! Get Away!” response in your conversation partner. People with RDFs are masters of this skill. And it’s very seductive.
STEP 3: Practice Being Present
Have you ever felt someone was making eye contact with you, but wasn’t taking in a thing you were saying? My friend Marie Forleo has referred to this phenomenon as a “pretend gaze—their eyes are on yours, but their mind is on a Hawaiian beach.”
In our age of tweets and Facebook status updates and cellphone buzzes and new texts and IMs and VMs every few seconds, focusing your inner attention on the same person you’re talking with can be challenging, but its worth practicing the skill. (BTW, following Tim’s low-information diet helps with this.)
For one week, whenever you talk with someone, practice noticing whenever your mind drifting—to the laundry, your bills, you co-worker’s snide comment today, that hottie you just spotted at the party whom you want to meet. Then, when you notice this inevitable mental drifting, bring your attention back to whomever you’re talking with at the moment. They will truly appreciate it.
We are living in a world where no one, it seems, has attention for anyone or anything for more than a few moments. How rare it is when someone pays attention to us. Consider the wording of the phrase: pay attention. In industrialized nations, at least, attention is becoming almost as scarce a resource as money. Someone who “pays” it to you is giving you something of true value.
As Elizabethan poet and statesman Fulke Greville has written, “Our companions please us less from the charms we find in their conversation than from those they find in ours.”
Clinton pays out his focused attention generously, making us feel he’s truly interested in us and what we have to say. This is why people love talking with him face-to-face.
That feeling of “we were the only two people in the room,” which Clinton is so skillful in fostering, stems from his eye contact, from his careful use of personal space, and from his unshakeable attention once he’s talking with you.
Learn to combine these three factors together, and you’re on your way to a rock-star Reality Distortion Field. Just be careful about what you do with all the attention!
BONUS: If you want a fantastic education in how the three factors we’ve been talking about–eye contact, personal space, and presence–interplay to create legendary persuasion, watch the below video clip from the second Bush-Clinton-Perot debate, on October 15, 1992.
The idea of a town-hall format was proposed to the Bush team by Clinton’s team in 1992, and Bush agreed. This was the first town hall presidential debate in US television history. Little did Bush know he had just agreed to battling the master on his own territory.
To appreciate just how fully Clinton nails this debate moment, I suggest watching the 4-minute clip twice–first with audio turned off, and then with audio on. If you’re at all interested in this post’s topic, it’ll be worth it.
I’ll put several comments below the video. [Note: I am not making any endorsement one way or the other about the political views expressed in this clip. I'm only talking about body language and persuasion.]
First point: In the initial seconds of the video, Bush checks his watch when the voter begins asking him a question. Presence? How about “How long do I have to listen to you before I can talk?” This was widely considered a “Dukakis-in-the-tank/Dean Scream” moment during the campaign, and among the worst gaffes in presidential debate history (up there with Gore’s sighs and eye rolls in 2000). And it all hinged on one moment of absent presence.
Notice Bush’s eye contact as he answers the woman’s question. It is sporadic, weak, drifting, and random. He hasn’t decided whether he’s talking to her, to the moderator, to the whole audience, or to the air in the room. In terms of personal space, he is totally unsure of how close he should stand; he walks closer to her, then backs off, visibly uncomfortable with the personal space aspect of the interchange. In all three factors of RDF we’ve talked about–eye contact, personal space, and presence–he’s clearly not making a personal connection with the voter.
At 2:30, when Clinton begins to answer, notice how he manages to simultaneously own the space and put the woman at ease. He walks up several yards closer than Bush did, making a personal connection in her space, without making her uncomfortable. His eye contact is clear, unwavering, and calm. There’s absolutely no mistaking whom he’s talking with. Clinton’s there in the room with two rival candidates, news media, other audience members, and a national TV audience of millions. Yet that feeling of “The only two people in the room” is palpable when he talks with the voter.
The result of this town hall debate? 58% of viewers declared Clinton the winner of the debate, 16% for Bush, and 15% for Perot. (In the previous debate, with a traditional podium format, 47% of viewers declared Perot to be the winner, with 30% for Clinton, and 16% for Bush.)
Look at the woman’s response at 3:22. Clinton completely has her. (Remember actress Gillian Anderson’s comment?) Bush’s facial expression at 3:47 is priceless. He knows he’s been beaten.
About the author: Michael Ellsberg is the author of The Power of Eye Contact. For his forthcoming book, already purchased by Penguin/Portfolio, he’s seeking to interview people who didn’t finish college who are successful at what they do. Fit the bill? Go to this page.
Ellsberg is also the creator of Eye Gazing Parties, a series of social events based on eye contact which attracted feature press coverage from the New York Times, Associated Press TV, CBS News, CNN, Good Morning America, MSNBC, Regis & Kelly, and more. Elle magazine called Eye Gazing Parties “New York’s hottest dating trend.”