I recently had a phone conversation with someone who was asking me about the importance of eye contact when networking. I answered his question with an interesting story about Sir Richard Branson, and I’d like to share that here, because I think it demonstrates a point that’s definitely worth remembering.

One of the many intriguing things about Richard Branson is that he has this laser-focus eye contact. When he is talking to you, he’s not looking to his left, looking to his right, or anywhere else other than directly at you–he gives you his full attention.

I remember talking with Richard, one time in particular, about kids and raising kids.  I was telling him about my son, Trey, who was fifteen at the time and very sharp, but not as committed to school as he could be.

Six months later, I saw Richard at a party and introduced him to my son.  Branson remembered who Trey was from our previous conversation, and decided to have a little chat with Trey.  A friend took a photograph of Branson, where he has this laser eye contact with my son, and he kept that laser eye contact with Trey for several minutes straight while he was talking to him.

All these people were around, vying for Branson’s attention, but he was completely focused on my son during their conversation. Branson wasn’t intense in terms of his speaking—he was actually very relaxed—but he was impressively intense in his focus. The only person in that room, during that time-span, was my son. Here’s a guy who never went to college, and he was telling my son. “Education is important. I spoke to your dad! You can do better. I have faith in you!”

Now, keep in mind, Trey was a typical teenager at the time, the kind that wouldn’t get impressed by anybody (or at least, like a typical teenager, he certainly didn’t make a habit of showing it when he was impressed).

Actually, I don’t think my son even understood just who Richard Branson was at the time of their conversation, but when I asked him afterward, “What did you think of that conversation?”  His very uncharacteristic response was, “That was amazing!” 

I’m more than confident that what really did it for Trey, what really impressed him, was how, for those few minutes, he had Branson’s undivided attention.

I’ve had a chance to see Richard Branson several times now, and he’s just a master at giving people his undivided attention. After his conversation with Trey, when he moved to the next conversation with the next person, he gave that person his undivided attention.

The thing is, giving people your undivided attention is one of the most important things you can do in order to become a master networker, and making a concentrated effort to maintain eye contact when engaging a conversation is imperative in order to demonstrate to somebody that they are receiving your undivided attention.

I’ve told the story about my son to several people, and it’s amazing the responses I get about the power of giving one your undivided attention. Among the many, these stand out….

I learned many years ago that the best way to remember someone’s name was to forget about yourself for that first meeting. This enables you to focus on the other person. Focus is the first step to a great memory.

It is frustrating and irritating to have people look at their smart phones or whatever while they are talking to you, or you are trying to talk to them. Having dealt with clients almost exclusively on a face-to-face basis for the past 30 years is – I am positive – the reason we will be celebrating our 30th anniversary soon. I work by appointment so they get my undivided attention.

Eye contact is about attention. Attention is respect, and giving respect is the most important thing between two people, especially when they don`t yet really know each other.

So, the next time you’re networking with someone and distractions surrounding you are tempting your eyes to stray from the person you’re speaking with, think of Richard Branson and remember to keep a laser focus on the person and conversation at hand–it’s one of the things that will make you a true master.

Called the "father of modern networking" by CNN, Dr. Ivan Misner is a New York Times bestselling author.  He is the Founder and Chairman of BNI (www.BNI.com), the world's largest business networking organization.  His book, Networking Like a Pro, can be viewed at www.IvanMisner.com.  Dr. Misner is also the Sr. Partner for the Referral Institute (www.ReferralInstitue.com), an international referral training company.