Article | 5 min read

Movie producer Brian Grazer wants you to look up—and into someone’s eyes

By Mark Smith

Last updated September 21, 2021

Editor’s note: So much great business advice, so little time to read. That’s why each month we’re reading a business book or bestseller so that you don’t have to. We’ll give you the gist, you’ll take away a few key points and, if inspired, you can rush to your local bookseller.

We’ve all been there: experiencing that sinking feeling when a coworker keeps looking at their phone during the presentation you worked on until 2 AM the night before, or the sour feeling of realizing that the attractive person you’ve been chatting up at a party keeps scanning the room, avoiding direct eye contact with you. It’s deflating, demoralizing, and increasingly common in the digital age.

Although smartphones and laptops aren’t inherently malignant—they’re just tools, after all—their ubiquity has been marked by a rise in feelings of social isolation, a trend that comes at a startling cost to human health and happiness. That’s not lost on Brian Grazer, who knows quite a bit about making human connections—as one half of a movie producing partnership with director Ron Howard, he’s made his name in a business that’s driven by personal relationships, one where the pitch is king. Failure to make a personal connection during a movie pitch means you’re back to pounding the pavement and your dream of making a film that much farther away.

Grazer’s intense focus on making human connections began in his youth as he wrestled with dyslexia, and over time he came to understand that he learned better by having conversations with knowledgeable people. Eventually, he began setting up meetings with interesting people with no set agenda, a practice that has led to fascinating conversations with world leaders, artists, and even Dr. Jonas Salk (although meeting the man who cured polio made Grazer so nervous that he ended up throwing up on his childhood hero).

[Related read: How to change the way you deal with change]

The power of eye contact

In his new book, Face to Face: the Art of Human Connection, Grazer uses anecdotes from those meetings and his famed career (Night Shift, Splash, 8 Mile) to illustrate how he employs a simple technique that has helped him achieve artistic greatness: eye contact.

“A major reason we are becoming so bad at forming connections is because we are losing the ability, the opportunity, and the desire to look others in the eye,” Grazer writes. “The more we attend to our devices rather than the people in front of us and the more we send messages via text, email, and social media rather than meeting and talking face-to-face, the more comfortable we become looking down at our screens rather than up at one another. And the loss is huge.”

“A major reason we are becoming so bad at forming connections is because we are losing the ability, the opportunity, and the desire to look others in the eye.”
Brian Grazer

Beyond making eye contact, Grazer urges readers to spend more time listening than talking—and not just pretending to listen. That technique has helped him build relationships with guarded celebrities such as Eminem and Eddie Murphy, among others. “When we are talking with someone, we often spend more time thinking about what we are going to say rather than we do paying attention to what’s being said,” Grazer writes. “People feel valued when they are listened to, which fosters feelings of trust and respect.”

Create a meeting of the eyes

If there’s a weakness in Face to Face, it’s in the marketing: the book’s subtitle, “the Art of Human Connection,” implies a prescriptive approach, one that is not entirely clear in the slim volume. If anything, Grazer’s book is more of a series of engaging anecdotes—such as traveling to Senegal with Dave Matthews and Trey Anastasio (of Phish) to experience a performance of the legendary Baaba Maal or his failed (and unsettling) attempts to secure a one-on-one conversation with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. Given Grazer’s occupation, he can be forgiven for the name dropping, since a man who has won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind and received nearly 200 Emmy nominations will naturally have stories to tell about famous people.

But the main takeaway from Face to Face is this: although it might be uncomfortable at first, make an effort to establish and maintain eye contact (though, as he stresses, it’s vital to understand when to break that contact so the recipient won’t become uneasy). And it’s also important to take cultural norms into account—in some parts of the world, like Japan and East Africa, he writes, direct eye contact can be seen as disrespectful, especially when taking into considerations such as power dynamics. But overall, he says, face-to-face conversations and the power of eye contact can create magical connections that lay the groundwork for great things.

“Today, whether in business or socially, I am surprised and struck when someone makes really good eye contact,” Grazer writes. “When a person looks calmly into my soul, and is genuinely interested in my existence, it feels unique and real. And I remember them for it.”

The fact that Grazer finds it so surprising when he meets someone who makes eye contact can be read as a sad testament to our times—but it can also be seen as a warning sign and a call to action. While his plea for more eye contact may not be revolutionary, Grazer’s passion for forging personal connections shouldn’t be overlooked. As his career shows, a little eye contact can go a long way—and it can be a difference-maker no matter where you work.