The one thing all new students on our group exercise to music courses say is they never realised how much then needed to know in order to teach. Great instructors educate, demonstrate, observe, entertain, remember choreography, accommodate different levels, modify the class as needed and all of this is done in time with the music. Yes, there are a lot of skills required to be a great instructor.
We don't however, develop these skills all in one go. Throughout our career we focus on developing different skills at different times. When we start learning how to teach, we focus on music phrasing and working to the beat; it's the first skill we all must master before developing any others. Next, we work on remembering the choreography and the sequences of moves. Once we have these skills we move onto observational skills to help ensure a safe and effective workout for our members. Next, we have to work on our performance and develop our personality. As we all know, the best instructors are those whose classes are FUN.
Only when we are confident in these areas can start to develop some of the more subtle skills of instructing; one of which is eye-contact.
Eye contact is probably one of the most powerful skills we can develop in terms of building rapport with our clients. Great rapport means our clients will work hard while they are there and are more likely to come back, thereby increasing retention and exercise adherence. Eye contact with a member accompanied with a smile shows you:
- have respect for them
- are interested in their performance
- appreciate them coming to your class
- understand what they are doing and experiencing
- are engaged with them
Sims Wyeth from Sims Wyeth & Co, specialists in professional development, lists 10 reasons why eye contact is so important when presenting:
- It helps us concentrate on what we are doing. If we are looking outside the room while teaching, it is easy to become distracted by things that we see. We may end up forgetting what we are doing and teaching.
- More eye contact makes us look authoritative i.e. makes us look confident and that we know what we are doing. Gazing at the floor or the ceiling make us appear unsure and lacking in confidence.
- If we look people in the eye, they will look us in the eye. This keeps them engaged with us and the workout. If we don't look them in the eye, it is easy for them to become distracted and to start thinking of other things.
- Eye contact makes us more believable and our members are then more willing to trust in what we are saying. When it comes to educating them on fitness, we want them to believe what we are saying and believe in the exercise programme we are teaching.
- When someone looks you in the eye, it shows their conviction. So when we look our members in the eye as we teach, we show them we have conviction and belief in what we are saying and doing.
- Believe it or not, giving our members eye contact also makes US feel more confident. While at first it may feel awkward, once we are able to maintain eye-contact we will feel more confident in what we are saying and doing.
- As we scan the room looking to make eye contact, members feel we are more engaged with them and they will, in turn, become more engaged with us. We will find they are more willing to answer questions we ask during class and also engage with us more after class.
- Communication with our members becomes a two-way street. We will find we get more response from our members and we end up having mini-conversations during class.
- To keep the communication going, we have to make sure we respond to the signals we see. If we see someone struggling or confused, we need to respond accordingly. If we see someone having a great time, we should acknowledge this and it further improves rapport.
- Looking someone in the eye will help with our instructions. Eye contact tends to slow our speech making our instructions clearer to the group.
For some of us, making eye contact can feel awkward or unnatural. It is however a skill that we can all learn. We can develop this skill not just while teaching, but also in other areas of our lives. In fact, the more we practise outside the group exercise studio, the better we become at it inside the studio.
Here are some simple pointers on how to improve our eye contact outside the group exercise studio:
- When having conversations with people, relax and stay calm. There have been many studies which show we learn best when in a relaxed state. If we feel anxious, taking a deep breath will help us relax. We can then focus on developing our new skill.
- Whenever having a conversation with anyone, start by looking at their face in general rather than directly in the eyes. Keeping our focus on someone's face teaches us to look in the direction we need to first. As we become more confident, we can start focusing more on the eyes.
- Focus on a spot near the eye, this could be the bridge of the nose, an eyebrow, or just below the eye. This once again brings us one step closer to our goal.
- Focus on one eye first, then the other, moving between each eye every 10 seconds. Don't switch too quickly as this will become distracting to the person we are talking to. Remember, stay relaxed.
- Practise eye contact while both listening and speaking. We tend to find it easier to maintain eye contact when listening. If we practise while listening, it will make it easier when we are speaking.
- Think of the person we are talking to, not ourselves. This allows us to become less self-conscious and more involved in the conversation.
Here are some more specific points which will help us when teaching:
- Demonstrating confidence requires good preparation. We need to know what we are teaching so we can focus on developing our new skill rather than thinking about the moves we have to teach.
- Lead with a good introduction. Eye contact with strangers is more difficult than with people we know well. Having a well prepared, friendly introduction allows us to “get to know" our group sooner. Asking a couple of questions and responding to answers allows us to become more familiar with everyone and will make eye contact seem less awkward for the rest of the class.
- Facing the group is better than having our backs to the group and looking in the mirror. Being face-to-face brings us closer to everyone and gives us a clear line of sight, facilitating more eye contact. Sure, at times we have to face the mirror to ensure everyone understands the travel and direction, but having our back to the group creates a barrier and makes it more difficult for us to engage with the group. We must look at our choreography and identify those moves which have to be done in participant image (back to the group), and ensure all the others are done in instructor image (facing the group).
- Ask a friend for help. Sometimes we don't always realise what we are doing and therefore, asking a friend for help and guidance makes us more aware of our unconscious behaviours. A friend can help us identify those situations where we don't do as well as we would like to.
It may seem like a very small thing, but eye contact is powerful. Watch your fellow instructors and take note of those who offer eye contact and those who don't. The difference in the reaction from members will be obvious. We all strive to improve our teaching skills so we can offer our members the best workout. Giving eye contact to the group is one of the many things we can do to achieve just that.