I love visiting other churches. I love walking on a church campus for the first time pretending I know nothing about church. It helps me understand how people might feel when they come to visit my church for the first time.
I visited a new church this week that I have never been to. They have a nice building. Their volunteers were friendly. The music was good. But as I sat and listened to the pastor, for some reason I was having trouble connecting.
The content was good, but something in his delivery was off. That’s when I realized the problem. The pastor had lousy eye contact.
His eyes bounced left, right, then down at his notes. Left, right, notes. Left, right, notes.
Although the message was thought out, his eyes betrayed him. His nerves showed. And it made it hard to watch and listen.
Eye contact is critical for four major reasons.
4 Benefits of Eye Contact in Preaching:
1. Eye Contact Builds Trust
When people lie, what do their eyes do? They look away! That is why people will say, “Look me in the eyes and tell me the truth.” It is very difficult to lie while holding eye contact. This is why professional poke players wear sun glasses.
So when you preach with poor eye contact, people will be less likely to trust what you are saying. It naturally communicates deceit. If you do not hold eye contact when making bold statements, people will naturally question your sincerity. The power of your preaching will suffer.
I know you are not lying. You deeply believe what you are saying. But if you aren’t careful, your eyes will sabotage you.
People are more likely to trust you when you look them in the eyes. You have to hold eye contact with individual people in the room for more than a few seconds at a time.
2. Eye Contact Shows Confidence
The main reason people do not look their audience in the eyes is nerves. You are afraid of their reactions. Your eyes bounce around from carpet to ceiling but not in people’s eyes.
The other reason you don’t look people in the eyes is because you don’t know the material well enough. You look at your notes constantly. Either you are not prepared enough, or your notes are like a security blanket. You don’t need them, but you keep looking at them for comfort.
Both cases are a lack of confidence in yourself or the message.
Strong eye contact is a sign of confidence. Think about the most insecure person you know. I bet they rarely make eye contact with you or anyone in a room.
Now think about the most confident person you know. They look you straight in the eyes, don’t they?
Eye contact is a natural sign of confidence. When you look your audience in the eye it communicates that you believe in the importance of what you are doing. You are confident in your message. You are a person worth listening to.
If you struggle with nerves, you have to push through that. If your notes are a problem, you have to get rid of them.
Regardless, you are putting too much stock in yourself. Be confident in God.
3. Eye Contact Helps Engagement
You are driving in your car. You stop at a red light and do what many of us do – look at the person in the car next to you. What do they do? They look right back! You quickly look away.
Why does this happen? We can sense when people are looking at us. It gets our attention. When you look at someone they pay attention to you.
I learned this from preaching to middle school students. There is no more distracted audience than a large group of 13 year olds. The more middle schoolers you put in a room the lower their collective IQ and attention span gets. I had to learn how to keep them engaged or my message was lost.
Sometimes you have no choice but to call them out, but many times all it takes is a look. When I notice a group of boys talking, I just continue my message while looking directly at them. It doesn’t take long before they look up and see me gazing their direction.
They suddenly stop what they are doing and look at me. Why? Because they know I am looking at them.
When you see someone looking at you, you pay attention.
4. Eye Contact Reads the Audience
When you look at the actual people in the room instead of your notes or the floor, you have the critical ability to read them. You will get a monitor on their pulse.
When you look at them, you will know when you have connected or if they need more explanation.You will know if you are losing people or if they are leaning in. You will see if people laugh at your joke or if it bombs.
You will see if people emotionally connect to a story. You will know if people are cracking open their Bible to follow along and dig into the scripture with you.
Monitoring the pulse of your people while you are preaching allows you to react in the moment. You will know where to improve, and you will be a far better preacher for it.
Work On It
The rule for eye contact is counterintuitive: When you try to look at everyone you connect with no one. But when you focus on one, you connect with nobody.
Good eye contact while preaching is not a natural tendency, it is a learned habit.
You have to be intentional about it. You have to practice.
Whenever you preach next, look left, right, and middle. Left side of the room. Hold 10 seconds or so. Right side of the room. Hold 10 seconds. Middle of the room. Hold 10 seconds. Repeat.
In the back of your mind you have to be thinking, “eye contact, eye contact, eye contact.” You have to consciously think about it until it becomes natural.
At first it will be awkward. You will notice things you never noticed before. You will have to fight getting distracted.
This is easier to do if you walk the stage. Walk to the left, talk to them for a while. Walk to the right, talk to them for a while. Walk to the center… you get the point.
Just remember to be slow and take your time. If you do move too fast you will look like a hyperactive kid after three espresso shots.