One of the funniest moments of the 2014 Emmy Award show last night had to do with the power and challenges of eye contact. It happened midway through the show when Gail Mancuso won the best directing Emmy for a comedy series, Modern Family. If you missed the show, here’s the clip of her award.
You’ll see two of the actors from Modern Family (Ty Burrell and Jesse Tyler Ferguson) talking about Mancuso’s direction. When she directs, they say, Mancuso emphasizes the need for actors to be in the moment, to listen to each other, to be fully present in the scene, to establish strong eye contact. It’s funny because as they talk about listening and eye contact, they speak over each other and don’t pay any attention to what the other is saying.
That bit was funny enough, but as it turns out it’s just a setup for what’s to come. When Mancuso takes the stage to accept the award she says that it would be too difficult to look at her colleagues as she speaks, so she directs her eye contact to Matthew McConaughey instead. Here’s some of what she said.
I feel like I’m gonna lose it. I feel like I wanna look at my cast, and I love them so much. If you don’t mind, Matthew McConaughey, I’m just going to make eye contact with you right now. So Matthew, I’m gonna talk about how great my producers are over there….I can’t look at them because I’ll cry.
I’d like to answer two questions about how this part of Mancuso’s acceptance speech applies to the world of business presentations. Why is this funny, and why is this true?
Why is this funny? Because it goofs on the find-a-friendly-face-and-speak-to-that-person idea often applied by nervous business presenters. Mancuso takes this to the extreme to excellent effect, of course, and it doesn’t hurt that McConaughey’s good looks had already been the subject of the conversation earlier in the show. While you might want to begin by looking at a friendly face, it gets silly if that person is the only one you talk to.
Why is this true? Because when you’re under stress, it can be very difficult to look at the people you know best. Eye contact is a powerful thing. And if your goal is to hold strong emotions back, to get through the speech without losing it, you might very well want to avoid people who will bring tears to your eyes. Engage other people in the audience and use your connection to them to say what you want to say.
By directing her eye contact to McConaughey, Mancuso not only kept her cool, but she also delivered one of the funniest acceptance speeches of the night.