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How to ‘read’ your audience

[This post is part of the series on Preaching for youth]. I started my public speaking ‘career’ as a middle school and high school teacher. When you’re teaching, reading an audience is a necessity, not a nice bonus. I mean I loved my students for the most part, but letting them out of your sight was usually a bad idea. So even when I was teaching, talking to them, I constantly let my eyes roam around and watch what they were doing.

Why read your audience?

The upside to my short teaching career is that I have learned to read an audience, a skill that comes in very handy when preaching for youth. Being able to read your audience has several distinct advantages:

  • You can see when you’ve lost your audience and can try to get their attention back while preaching.
  • You can see which parts of your sermon (or the whole service) have impact and connect with your audience and which ones don’t. This is very valuable feedback you can use to improve your sermons, because you can include elements that are certain to keep their attention.
  • You can see who’s interested in general and who’s not, because you’ll usually detect a pattern when you speak to the same group regularly. This is a lot harder too observe when you’re sitting in the audience.
  • You can respond to reactions when appropriate. I’ve preached in a lot of youth services from our own youth ministry and I’ve done this a lot because I knew most of the students in my audience. When I saw someone react puzzled or in agreement with something I’d just said, I’d ask him or her about it. When you do this in a non-threatening, friendly way, it’s a great interactive way to get students involved in a sermon.


How you can read your audience

Reading your audience isn’t something that comes natural to most people, but it can be learned. It requires however that you know your sermon so well, that you don’t need to focus on your text or notes, but are able to make eye contact with the audience and look around. If this is hard for you, try to practice it in a smaller setting, for instance a training session or in the teaching part of a small group session.

While you are talking or during a short break in your sermon, look around the room and quickly study your audience. What are they doing? Reading your audience is all about body language, so watch how they look, sit, behave, etc. Try to be subtle about this, don’t scare people into paying attention by staring them down!

This is what you want to see:

  • Eye contact, facing forward
  • Sitting up straight, alert position
  • Smiling, positive facial expression
  • Taking notes
  • Responding non verbally to what you’re saying, for instance by subtle nodding
  • Laughing at your jokes

Here are some signs you have lost your audience’s attention:

  • Looking down/away/to others
  • Holding their cell phone or other gadgets or even playing with
  • Reading their Bible (may seem Christian – but it still means they’re not listening to you!)
  • Doodling on the info bulletin
  • Talking to each other
  • Slumped position
  • Yawning, closed eyes…or even actually sleeping
  • Frequent body shifting, not being able to sit still
  • Turning their body away from you
  • Closing notebooks (apparently you’re not saying anything worth writing down!)

If you see these negative signs by just a few, don’t worry. There will always be students tuning out at some point. But of it’s something you see in the majority, it’s time to get your audience’s attention back.

I’ve known of preachers who taped themselves to learn from their own sermons and improve their effectiveness. But have you ever thought about taping your audience? If you tape your audience, preferably with your own audio in it, you can see exactly when and where you’ve lost their attention. It could help you analyze your sermon style and find any weak spots.

How do you read your audience when you preach?

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0 thoughts on “How to ‘read’ your audience

  1. […] helps to slow me down and not speak too fast. An added benefit is that you can make eye contact and read your audience at the same time to check if they’re still with you. Just make sure you don’t keep staring at […]

  2. I love this.

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