Eye Contact


By Mark Vermilion

For two decades, I’ve been working with public speakers. I started by teaching freshman public speaking courses and then more advanced speaking courses at Taylor University and Indiana Wesleyan University. For the past decade, I’ve been coaching ministry communicators who want to maximize the impact of their speaking.

Some are pastors, some are itinerant speakers, some are NFL players who speak part-time to corporate or church audiences in the off-season, and some are musicians or entertainers who speak on the side.

When coaching the delivery of a speaker, I immediately address the speaker’s eye contact with the audience. Anyone who’s taken a communication course of any kind understands the importance of eye contact. However, I want speakers to understand why authentic eye contact is so important. When they understand the why, it makes them even more motivated to work on genuine eye contact.

Eye contact does at least three things for a speaker:
1. It establishes a speaker’s relationship with his or her audience. More than any other part of the speaker’s delivery, eye contact allows the audience to feel relationally connected to the speaker. This is especially important if the speaker wants to connect with the hearts of audience members. Speaking is already one-sided because the audience generally doesn’t get to talk back. Eye contact makes the speaker seem like a caring person who’s trying to connect with them.

Studies have supported what may seem intuitive: People don’t want to just hear a message. They want to connect with the messenger. In fact, they have a hard time receiving a message if they don’t relate well to the messenger.

2. Similarly, eye contact makes speakers seem more credible and trustworthy with their audiences. Have you ever noticed that people who are lying have a hard time looking you in the eye? Not only that, have you noticed that people who are socially awkward have a hard time looking you in the eye when they talk to you? Eye contact says the opposite. It allows speakers to nonverbally communicate: “You can trust what I’m telling you.” Without using words, they’re saying, “I’m very comfortable being up here on stage.” This is an especially important nonverbal message in settings where the audience doesn’t personally know the speaker.

3. Eye contact allows speakers to “read” their audience’s response. It’s a way of monitoring feedback. It allows speakers to see if they’re connecting with their audiences. They can monitor if the audience is with them, if it’s confused, if it’s emotionally connected, and if it’s enjoying the experience.

It allows the speaker to be “in the moment,” constantly reading and adapting to the audience.

The bottom line is that eye contact in speaking is all about relationship with the audience. All three of these functions are relational in nature.

That’s why I always put the initials “IRS” on my speaking notes. It stands for: “It’s Relationships, Stupid!” It’s a reminder to me that my objective is not just to dump data on my audience. It’s about connecting with them in meaningful and relational ways.

Looking people in the eye
So, what does this Speech 101 lesson on eye contact have to do with you? Glad you asked.

In a sense, Jesus has called his followers to make eye contact with others. When Jesus walked the earth, he served others in very relational ways. He didn’t just throw money at a problem and let someone else do the “dirty work.” He got involved in the messes of people’s lives. He served people up close and in person. He valued people and pursued relationship with them.

He made eye contact with them.

The religious elite of his day spent a lot of time in the synagogue and taught and debated Scripture. On the other hand, Jesus spent most of his ministry outside the synagogue, living out the Scripture. He walked among the poor, diseased, oppressed, and sinful. He got up close to them–where they lived, where they worked, and where they hung out.

He got close enough to look them in the eyes.

The religious elite got really bothered because Jesus hung out and ate at the same dinner table with sinners (Matthew 9:10-13). And I can imagine it really bothered them when he got so close to a leper that he actually touched him (Matthew 8:1-4). And even the disciples got a little bothered when he picked up children and put them on his lap (Matthew 19:13-15).

Can’t get much closer than eating with, touching, and holding.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that Jesus wants our ministry to be up close, too. As his “followers,” we’re called to make eye contact with people like he did. We’re called to get relationally close enough to touch people, sit at meal tables with them, and (when the time is right) to hold them.

As I reflect on my own life, I think I do pretty good job of getting up close to people who are a lot like me. People who shower regularly, wear clean clothes, have decent jobs and work hard, have enough money to pay for their own basic needs, aren’t rude and grouchy, don’t use a lot of vulgar language, communicate fairly well, and don’t have disgusting habits.

But if I’m really honest, I struggle getting up close to some of the people Jesus got up close to. But I’m working on it.

In the past few years, I’ve read a lot about Mother Teresa, and I’ve been inspired by how willing she was to get into the messes of people who’s live were, well, a mess. She got up close and looked into the eyes of elderly people who couldn’t control their bowels. She looked into the eyes of lepers while cleaning their wounds. She looked into the eyes of orphan children as she held them and cared for their needs. And she shared meals around the table with poor people who didn’t have anything to eat.

Here’s my deep confession: More and more, I want to get up close and look into the eyes of people who live in different parts of my community than me. I want to get up-close with the poor who live in other parts of the world than me. I want to get up close and look into the eyes of people who feel overlooked and undervalued. I want to get up close to the hungry, the suffering, the marginalized, the oppressed, the godless, the outcast, the hardened, and the orphan. So close that I can talk with them, touch them, eat with them, serve them, feed them, and (when the time is right) hold them.

I want to establish eye contact with them.

My eye contact with the most needy will accomplish the same thing as my eye contact when I’m giving a talk. It will earn my credibility with them. It will help me monitor their responses and better adapt to their needs.

And, in short, it will help me establish a relationship with them.

Somewhere, somehow, I got the idea that ministry is something I can do from a safe and comfortable distance from those who’s lives are a mess. That it’s something I can give money and talent to so I can help others do the dirty work. That the ministry is a church program, or worse yet, a Sunday-morning service.

First and foremost, ministry is a relational endeavor.

Ministry makes eye contact.

Eye Contact with God
Ultimately, people really need eye contact with God.

And I’m learning that some will never have eye contact with him until they’ve had eye contact with you and me. It’s through relationship with us that they’re often introduced to him. It’s through our relational, caring, sacrificial, active hands-and-feet service that they learn about an even greater love than ours.

Eye contact with you and me may be the first step for some as they journey toward making eye contact with God.

So here’s our mission, if we’ll accept it: To establish eye contact with those who have the greatest needs, and to help them establish eye contact with God. That’s the essence of the Live Love Movement.

I think it’s time we all worked on our eye contact.