How to Make Eye Contact on Zoom for Better Rapport and Less Fatigue
Do you ever feel like you aren’t connecting with someone on Zoom? And do you feel completely worn out after just a few Zoom meetings? Or even one?
As a coach whose practice has transformed from primarily in-person sessions to almost entirely virtual, I’m on Zoom for hours at a time. And while the technology used by Zoom and other providers like Google Meet and Microsoft Teams rapidly evolved and improved in response to market demand — it still just didn’t feel quite right.
You know what I’m talking about.
Conversations were still good, and I believe that the people I was coaching still experienced the same value from the coaching process. It was hard though to achieve the same level of interpersonal connection that I (and I assume they) had felt when we were in the same physical space together.
And I was tired.
Much more tired at the end of a day on Zoom than I had been after meeting people in person. I was determined to find a better setup that would improve the situation for me, and for the people I was working with.
I think I’ve found that better Zoom setup, and there have been multiple benefits.
What’s missing for most people on Zoom
If you’re in business, you’ve likely logged a lot of hours on Zoom or one of its equivalents, and what I’m about to share will probably not come as a surprise.
While the one-on-one conversations you have on Zoom might serve their purpose, they just don’t feel as engaging as in-person conversations.
Why is that?
If you’re using a laptop, a tablet, or a webcam mounted on top of your external monitor for Zoom meetings, you have two choices when it comes to where to look. You can look directly at the other person’s image on the screen, or you can look directly at the camera lens.
This presents a dilemma.
It feels better for you if you look at the other person’s image — their eyes, specifically. But if you do, it appears to the other person that you’re looking off to their side or somewhere above them. Definitely not into their eyes. In other words, there’s probably little or no eye contact from the perspective of the person that you’re speaking with.
Alternatively, if you look into the camera during a Zoom meeting, the effect for the person on the other side of the lens is that you’re looking directly at them and into their eyes. But for you, looking directly at a camera lens — which could be a minuscule dot depending on your device — there’s no feedback. None. There’s no one looking back at you. And even though you can probably see the other person’s image in your peripheral vision, it’s hard to read facial expressions and other physical cues that help you understand how the other person is reacting to what you’re saying.
So what’s the solution given the obvious dilemma?
I have two.
Two ways to establish eye contact on Zoom
The first solution for making eye contact on Zoom requires no extra equipment, but it will likely require that you develop new habits while on camera. And it comes at a mental and — at least in my experience — a physical cost.
The second solution requires a relatively significant monetary investment. It may only make sense for people who either anticipate being on Zoom many hours a week or whose position and ambitions require that they cultivate their executive presence online and not just in person. My experience while coaching has been that clients at the Director level and above are often pretty interested in the equipment I’m using and how it’s set up. In fact, that interest was what prompted me to pull this series of posts together.
On Zoom, it feels better for you if you look at the other person’s image — their eyes, specifically. But if you do, it appears to the other person that you’re looking off to their side or somewhere above them. Definitely not into their eyes.
With no special equipment and a few new habits
The simplest solution to making eye contact on Zoom requires no special equipment at all. If you’re using a desktop or laptop, the not-so-secret secret is to make your Zoom window relatively small — as small as you can stand it — and position it immediately below your laptop camera or webcam.
With your Zoom window and camera placed this close together, it will appear to the other person that you’re almost looking directly at them if you’re looking at their eyes on your screen. To make up for this slight disconnect, I’d suggest that you develop a habit of looking at the camera regularly to establish direct eye contact. Specifically, I’d tell you to look at the camera:
- When you first say hello at the beginning of a Zoom session.
- In moments when you think making direct eye contact would be necessary for developing rapport, such as when the other person is sharing something particularly meaningful to them.
- At the ends of sentences, when you’re making a particularly important point. This is especially helpful for cultivating your own executive presence.
- When you’re saying goodbye at the end of a Zoom session.
In concept, this doesn’t sound too difficult. In practice, it has some drawbacks. The key disadvantages that I’ve experienced are:
- You’re looking away from the other person frequently, so you might miss facial expressions and body language that convey meaning.
- You have to think about the timing of when you look at the camera. This could be a little distracting to very distracting, depending on who you are. You could potentially feel like an observer of a conversation as opposed to a participant in it.
- All that thinking about the timing of eye contact takes energy — a surprisingly large amount of energy. If you need to do it for short periods, let’s say an hour or two, the drain isn’t too significant. For more extended periods, let’s say multiple Zoom meetings over days, it can be downright exhausting.
But this approach doesn’t cost anything or require any detailed technical knowledge. If you can resize and move a window on your computer desktop, then you’re golden.
With high-end equipment and no new habits
First, I’m going to acknowledge that this solution isn’t for everyone. It requires a one-time investment of about $2,500 and a reasonably capable computer with abundant RAM. And it’s specifically for people who:
- Are on Zoom a lot for work.
- Find that their current Zoom setup leaves them feeling less than connected to the person on the other side of the camera.
- Often feel tired after multiple hours of Zooming.
- Consider developing rapport and cultivating executive presence critical to their effectiveness and career ambitions in our new virtual/hybrid work environment.
As an executive and career coach, I think a higher-end Zoom setup makes sense for my work, given that my effectiveness is, in part, related to my ability to develop rapport with the person I’m coaching. The setup I’m going to suggest could also make sense for a senior leader or an aspiring leader who needs or wants to communicate authority (and maybe even a little gravitas) on Zoom. If it’s not the thing for you, then I’ll see you in another post.
The solution I’ve found for making consistent and direct eye contact on Zoom requires the following equipment:
- A teleprompter and a tripod
- A monitor that is sized appropriately for your teleprompter (an iPad will work in a pinch but has limitations)
- A high-quality digital camera and lens
- A capture card that will allow you to connect your camera to your computer
- A dummy battery so that your camera can run continuously on AC power without fear of it shutting down
- A combination of cables and adapters to connect your camera, capture card, and computer
Given that most people have probably never interacted with a teleprompter, I’ll provide this brief and non-technical explanation of what one is and how it works:
The teleprompter I use is a semi-enclosed box, within which you can mount a camera. A special mirror called a beam splitter sits directly in front of the camera lens and is tilted towards the user at a 45-degree angle. The camera is able to see through the mirror to capture your image. Below the mirror, lying flat and face up, is a display or monitor. The image on that monitor is reflected toward you, the user, by the angled mirror.
Almost magically, you can look directly at the camera lens but not see it. Instead, you only see the image on the display, which is reflected at you in the mirror sitting directly in front of the camera lens. In this example, the reflected image will be your Zoom window, the one in which you see the person you’re speaking with. In other words, you can look directly into the eyes of the other person on Zoom and at the camera lens simultaneously.
The benefits are obvious and immediate. You can maintain eye contact with the other person continuously or as appropriate. And you no longer have to expend energy thinking about when you should be looking at the other person’s image on Zoom and when you should be looking at the camera lens so that the other person gets a sense of direct eye contact. It seems like a relatively minor consideration as I sit here writing about it, but it makes a huge difference in practice.
Without transporting yourself into a next-generation Zoom metaverse, you’re getting as close to an in-person meeting as possible.
How effective is this Zoom setup?
From the feedback I’ve gotten from dozens of clients, the Zoom setup I use makes a big difference. The word I hear most often is that the experience with me on Zoom is just more engaging than the experience my clients have in other Zoom meetings. And the MBA types I tend to coach generally participate in a lot of meetings on Zoom and other platforms, so I value their opinion.
I’m convinced that I come across as more engaged because I’m making consistent eye contact with clients. I’m not looking off to the side from their perspective or over their heads. I’m looking right at them, into their eyes. I managed that with great effort and distraction for a long time by shifting my gaze back and forth between their image on my computer screen and my webcam. More recently, I can maintain eye contact with clients by looking directly at their image in my teleprompter. It’s almost as if we’re in the same room and requires no extra thought or effort.
It’s just one of those things that once you’ve experienced it, you can’t imagine going back to how you did it before.
Again, while setting the teleprompter and other gear up isn’t especially difficult, it does require a substantial investment. Depending on your situation and your career ambitions, it could make sense, or not. It definitely ups the ante when it comes to on-screen authority and credibility.
If you’re interested in the specifics of my Zoom gear and how I’ve set it up, I've written about it in this blog post.