June 2, 2021

The Eyes Have It

How quickly things change, who twelve months ago would have expected to see signs insisting masks must be worn when entering a bank or a petrol station? As face coverings have become the norm for customers in shops and enclosed public spaces, and their use becomes more globally widespread, what are the potential impacts of this change on the way that we communicate, and that potential opportunities may arise as a result?

The majority of people will continue to communicate using our primary mechanism of speech, but when this might be slightly muffled by the use of a mask and our lip-reading skills are reduced, our other senses will naturally need to work overtime to compensate in helping us to decode effectively the messages being sent to us.

We are all hard-wired at an instinctive level to respond to certain sensory triggers. These are subconsciously interpreted and generate emotion and action before the conscious part of our brain can respond. (Like our fight-or-flight response when in danger). Understanding how these work, and how they can be triggered can help us become both better communicators and interpreters ocommunication.

The most interesting landscape for our brains is the human face. There are seven universal emotions that are recognised from people’s facial expressions that are the same regardless of culture, gender or ethnicity. They are sadness, happiness, fear, anger, disgust, surprise and contempt (the last one will undoubtedly be familiar to anyone with a teenaged daughter ☺). So we are all instinctively skilled at decoding these signals.

Eyes play a hugely important part in our ability to communicate. In nature, if something looks at you, you are compelled to look back and understand why? It’s our survival instinct kicking in and we’re looking to answer one of the four simple questions to ourselves. What I call the four ‘F’s. So when you’re walking down the street, sat in your car, or sitting at a socially distanced pub table and someone or something looks at you, you are compelled to look back to understand one of the following things.

Do they want to Fight?

Do they want to Feed? (an ancient throwback to the days of the wolf) 

Are they Frightened of you?

Or 

Do they want to… (Fancy you)?

Once you know the intent, you can decide how to react or go back to what you were doing. So our eyes have huge power to influence how we decode communication. They are a very helpful way to create a point of focus or orientation in communication and messaging. Our brains love faces and prioritise them above all else in imagery, and the eyes act as the focal point of the face. So their use in communication can be key in the effective delivery of messaging and the feelings evoked by it. If something or someone looks directly at you, you look directly back. If they gaze in a certain direction you follow the direction of the gaze. Hence we can use eye contact to help direct attention on a key message or statement. Eyes can help us tell powerful stories, focus people’s attention, deliver emotion and encourage the response behaviours we desire from the communication.

How you use people’s faces and in particular their eyes within the design of your marketing communications is key to its success, they are important factors to help us decode the messages we wish to convey. Forward-thinking marketers might well look to harness the power of the face and elevate the role of eye contact to create real, deeply instinctive and emotional human communication.

Simon Preece, Founder of consultancy Bigger & Better Things, and Co-founder of SenseCheck.com

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