Speaking to teenagers: The eyes have it

By Duffy Robbins

There’s no question that eye contact is one of our most powerful tools of non-verbal communication. “In normal conversation people look at each other between 30 and 60 percent of the time,” writes Michael Argyle, author of The Psychology of Interpersonal Behavior. In fact, he states that when two individuals look at each other more than 60 percent of the time while talking, they are probably more interested in each other than in what is actually being said!

What that means for those of us who are Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, or even small group mentors is that we better take a good look at how we use our eyes to communicate. In fact, one study with the eye-catching title, Communicative Effects of Gaze Behavior (Burgoon, Coker and Coker) demonstrated that speakers who fail to make ample eye contact with their audience are perceived to be ill at ease and often insincere and dishonest.

What does that mean for those who speak to teenagers?

• Obviously, first of all, make sure you are always maintaining eye contact with your students. The smaller your group, the more important this is.

• Don’t allow anything to obstruct your students’ view of your eyes. This may sound silly, but lots of youth workers stand up to speak every week wearing a baseball hat, and if there is any overhead lighting at all, that hat bill casts a perfect shadow over your eyes. The only thing worse would be placing a catcher’s mitt over your whole face.

• It takes less than a second to make eye contact with a student in your audience. And that’s usually plenty. This is not Children of the Damned where we stare at them until they explode or turn into stone. Nor, should we be Tommy Typewriter, eyes methodically scanning back and forth, left to right across the crowd as if the audience were an ear of corn to be consumed. Most public speaking texts suggest starting with Z pattern, which gives good attention to the people in the back of the group, and offers an opportunity to work across the middle and up to the front. Of course, if there are students who are talking, or who look as if they need to be reeled in a bit, I will engage them with a bit of a longer look—more like I would if I were involved with them in conversation. It’s not a glare that says, “Hey, I’m looking at you…”; it’s an intentional engagement of the eyes that says, “Hello, I’m talking to you…” If they continue to talk or become disruptive, then I do actually stare at them until they explode or turn into stone.

Notes or Not.

One of the questions that arises when we talk about eye contact is whether or not it is good to use notes during a talk. It’s an important question and it deserves some attention. Objective studies have tested listener reactions to reading from a manuscript versus speaking extemporaneously (with few or no notes) and in terms of listener response it really is a slam dunk. Listeners retain approximately 38 percent more content when the message is delivered using extemporaneous speech.

There are very effective communicators in both camps. Although his sermons don’t read like it, John Calvin almost always preached without notes. And, supposedly, John Wesley often preached with his eyes closed. That doesn’t say much about his ability to make eye contact, but it certainly proves he wasn’t too dependent on notes. The best benefit of preaching without a lot of notes is its naturalness. Students are less likely to hear our words as authentic if we’re having to read them too carefully from a note card.

Consider these guidelines:

If you do choose to use notes…

• Don’t be too dependent on them. They should be more like a surfboard and less like a life preserver. One helps you stay on your feet as you ride the wave, the other is something you cling to keep your head above water. One makes the audience want to ride with you, the other makes the audience want to rescue you.

• Practice your talk several times. You don’t want to be so intent on giving the talk, that you’re unable to talk to your students.

• Memorize the opening and conclusion of your talk. That’s when eye contact is most important. When you’re having to search through your notes to find out what it was that you “…really believe from the bottom of (your) heart…”, that’s not very persuasive.

• Write your notes on one side only. That way you can easily slide the notes aside as you move through the talk. And use as few pages as possible.

• Use the most minimal stand possible on which to put your notes. Big massive pulpits are intimidating, especially to teenagers, and they block off a huge part of your body with which you need to communicate.