Have you ever wondered how you can become better at public speaking?
This past spring I had the opportunity to teach a preaching class for the undergrad religion department at Andrews University. As I saw different students delivering their sermons, I wrote down lessons that I wanted to review with them later.
The following are the biggest lessons I shared with those students. By the way, you may not be a pastor, but these lessons apply equally to anyone doing a public presentation.
1. Be Ruthlessly Clear With Your Main Idea
I’ve written several different posts related to preaching. Here are three of them: first, second, and third, and one of the themes I constantly circle back to is that of clarity in a message. This post about TED talks mentions clarity as one of the 7 Steps To Delivering a Mind Blowing Ted Talk.
From that article: “Can listeners repeat your big idea word for word? If they can, they’ll become your advocates. If they can’t, your big idea will be in one ear, out the other.”
Want a really simple way to make sure your message is really clear? Ask yourself this: What is the one question I am trying to answer?
Whatever this question is often ends up becoming the title to my sermon. For example, the last time I spoke at Pioneer Memorial Church this was my title: “What Would God Say To Mark Zuckerburg, CEO of Facebook?” From the very beginning, there was no doubt as to where I was headed. That was the question I was trying to answer.
Lack of clarity in a message creates discomfort and leads to distraction.
Ruthless clarity facilitates engagement.
I told my students that it’s almost like overacting; you have to go out of your way and repeat that main idea often. If not, people will be lost.
I’ve heard sermons where there were possibly five different-sounding main ideas. That is a no-no. Be clear about what it is, and build everything else around it.
2. Don’t Use A Manuscript
I’m a big believer in carefully planning out everything I will say in a message. I love words. I craft. I write a manuscript for every message. Yes, even that thing that might have sounded like I was free-styling–it was probably in my manuscript.
Do I bring a manuscript up with me, though? Absolutely not. Not anymore, anyway.
Here’s why: if you have the manuscript up there, you will be tempted to read from it or rely from it too heavily. It’s human nature. The manuscript is like this beautiful little crutch. It’s your safety net. It will hold and caress you if you fall. Ok, let me say something slightly controversial: I believe it’s a pacifier for preachers. It’s that thing that soothes them and makes them feel better.
Here’s a subsidiary point: Don’t aim to be impressive in a sermon; aim to be memorable.
What do I mean by that? There’s a huge trade-off to using a manuscript. With a manuscript, you can be really impressive.
You can give beautiful spoken word-sounding oratories that make people snap their fingers.
You can alliterate and make people’s hearts elevate as they swoon to the sound of your voice.
You can poetize and mesmerize and impress.
(See what I did there?)
But at what cost?
The first cost is that you’re stuck behind a pulpit. That by itself creates a huge problem with connecting with your audience.
Second, because you have such beautiful oratory written down, you need to read it or spend a lot of time looking down. This creates another huge problem, because wherever your eyes go, there the eyes of the audience will follow.
A lot of sermons are impressive sounding, but really unclear. And that is a waste of time.
So what’s the flip side to this?
You write a manuscript. Internalize the manuscript. Practice with the manuscript. But then you write an outline based on the manuscript and that’s what you take up with you. It might still be on the pulpit, or it might be taped into your Bible like I recommend here. But the cumulative effect is that you know that there is no extra safety net. As a result, you don’t need to look down. And you can actually walk away from the pulpit. And connect.
Clear messages where you are connecting with your audience are memorable.
Which leads me to the third point.
3. Don’t Preach to an Audience, Preach to Specific People
This is a simple point, I suppose, but it’s worth highlighting. Don’t stare at the clock. Don’t stare at the back of the room. Make specific eye contact and hold the eye contact. Speak to that person for just a moment. If you’re making a point about women, make eye contact with some women. If you’re making a point about men, direct your gaze and speak to some of the men.
Of course, you want to vary the eye contact. Don’t keep coming back to the same two or three people. Some people do this out of nervousness, and it’s awkward!
4. A Sermon Preached to 10 people Should Sound a Little Different Than a Sermon Preached to 1000 People
If you’re speaking to 10 people, you don’t have to raise your voice very much. It doesn’t have to SOUND LIKE A SERMON concerning volume. Give the same message, but you can be a lot more relational in your delivery. Hopefully, it will sound a lot more conversational. In fact, take advantage of the different dynamic. Be closer to people. Be more personal. If appropriate, place your hand on a shoulder.
Most people don’t have an issue scaling up–that is, if they’re used to speaking to small groups, they can usually adjust appropriately for larger groups. I’ve found that the reverse is harder for people, though. They feel like they still need to “preach” to a small group. If it’s just a few of us, talk and share with me, but don’t preach at me.
5. Know Your Own Story Better Than Anything Else In Your Sermon
Don’t use a manuscript. 99% of people don’t do it well. But if you must use a manuscript, you should never ever have to look down at the manuscript if you’re using a personal illustration. If you’re using a personal story as your opening illustration, take advantage of that, and step away from the pulpit to better connect with your audience. Remember: it’s your story. You shouldn’t have to read your own story. You experienced it, so tell us the story. Take advantage of those opportunities.
I’ll also add a subsidiary point here. Your opening illustration is your best opportunity to connect with your audience. Even if it’s not a personal illustration, you should have that thing so well internalized that you shouldn’t have to look at your manuscript. I see a decent number of preachers reading their opening illustration piece and it baffles me. Don’t do it. Step away from the pulpit. Make eye contact and tell the story.
So what about you? What would you add to the list to help someone be a better communicator?
[original image here]