In one of my recent perusals of the numerous Blogs I read, I stumbled across a posting by Mike Ellinger. Ellinger posts on a regular basis in several blogs on the net and has been picked up by numerous services over the years, but this particular one was about deconstructing the amazing “persona” of Bill Clinton and the way he is able to capture an audience when he speaks. In so many words, he says he’s figured out the secret—or at least, a big secret—of Bill Clinton’s legendary charm and face-to-face persuasion.
Ellinger says “I have a friend who has always despised Bill Clinton,” a person at a cocktail party told me. I don’t know how 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.”
I’m reminded of another engaging speaker. Steve Jobs from APPLE and home for the I-MAC, the I-PAD, the I-PHONE and the I-DON’T NEED THIS, who is famous for having what he describes as 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. Humble guy, that Steve. Just be sure there’s no grape kool-aid at the bar.
Well—whether you love his politics or hate them, it really doesn’t matter—Clinton is known for an RDF even stronger than Jobs’. Perhaps the strongest in the world.
So, what’s Clinton’s secret?
I did a bit of sleuthing and postulating on that question. If you Google “Bill Clinton” and “eye contact”, a plethora of references to Clinton’s optical omnipotence shows up.
There’s a New York Times Magazine profile near the beginning of his presidency which referred to his facility for “making eye contact so deep that recipients sometimes seem mesmerized. Even if you ignore all the Tabloid rumors, Clinton embodies the parallels between the seductions of politics and the seductions of sex. One Clinton watcher was quoted as saying: ‘It’s not that Clinton seduces women. It’s that he seduces everyone.’”
Another post from that same Google Search gave me a celebrity news blog from WENN, which said said, “Actress Gillian Anderson has discovered the secret behind former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s sex appeal—lingering eye contact.”
Anderson (She was Special Agent Dana Scully on The X-Files, you may recall) even spoke on Late Night With David Letterman of one time she encountered 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.”
So…intriguing as that is…Is it possible to hack this skill with eye contact? Is it possible for any of us to recreate Bill Clinton’s fabled RDF? (At least, the eye contact part?)
Absolutely. It’s going to take about 2 weeks of dedicated study, but you too can become a world-class master of eye contact. Operators are standing by…..call now! Have your credit card handy.
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!) make a point to look at the eyes of every person walking towards you long enough to recognize their eye color. Takes less than a second. Then look away. This is the best technique I know for building solid eye contact skills quickly. If the eye contact is brief enough, no one minds at all, and you get tons of practice in.
You can most certainly 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
Most assuredly, I’ve experienced bosses or strangers who “get up in your face,” and it feels very uncomfortable. Bill Clinton and others with the RDF skill set are experts at getting close to you while making you feel totally safe and comfortable. This increases feelings of intimacy, trust, and affinity.
So, how do they do it? Glad you asked. I’ll tell you. It’s a matter of mastering the subtle art of personal space. From that same Google search, I found out that this was first written about in-depth by an anthropologist named Edward Hall.
Our sense of “personal space” is that feeling we get of being “invaded” when someone steps too close.
Interestingly, our sense of personal space isn’t just 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, personal space begins to feel violated, and then you start having that icky “eww get away from me!” feeling we’ve all experienced with unwelcome conversations at parties. Look for some of this at the annual Christmas party this year.
However, if you can learn to modulate those five factors, and figure out how to combine them in some 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 depending on how you’re interacting with the person and how they’re reacting, 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? I call it “pretend gaze—their eyes are on yours, but their mind is on a Hawaiian beach.”
Today, when you have tweets and Facebook status updates and cellphones buzzing and new texts and emails and voice mails coming at you constantly, it gets hard to focus your inner attention on the same person you’re talking with, but it’s worth practicing the skill.
Here’s an exercise: 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. Make a conscious effort to stop doing everything that you’re doing when they approach and focus your attention on them. Make eye contact……etc…
The simple fact is that we live in a world today where no one has attention for anyone or anything for more than a few moments. You’ve got a very small window of opportunity to “capture” them.
Here’s something I found interesting: Consider the wording of the phrase: “pay attention.” In most industrialized nations, at least, the simple act of “attention” is becoming almost as scarce as money. Someone who “pays” it to you is giving you something of true value. How about that? (I think I just saw an eyebrow or two lift up! Do I have your attention now?) Our companions please us less from the charms we find in their conversation than from those they find in ours.
So, Clinton pays out his focused attention most generously, he makes 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. Say what you want about the man, but his skills are impressive.
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.
If you can learn to combine these three factors together, 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, go to you tube and watch a video clip from the second Bush-Clinton-Perot debate, back on October 15, 1992.
Clinton’s team proposed the town-hall to the Bush team in 1992. This was the first town hall debate in TV history and Bush had no idea of just how good Clinton was in it. If you REALLY want to get the most out of the clip, try watching the 4 minute clip twice. Once with the sound off and then the sound on. Watch how Bush avoids eye contact when the question is posed by the person in the audience and how he evades the question. Then watch Clinton “step off the mound” and make eye contact with the same person. Regardless of political slant, It’s a fascinating example of Clintons mastery of this. If you’re at all interested in what we’ve talked about this time around, it’ll be worth it.
Thanks for reading….