Delivering the Message
There is a fictitious story has been around for a long time. I heard it as a young man, and for some reason it stuck in my mind. As I remember it, a group of men who spent a lot of time together loved to tell jokes to each other. Over the years everyone had heard the others repertoire of jokes. As a result, they decided to save time in the telling of the details of each joke by numbering them. One day a new man was added to the group, and soon heard someone call out, “Number 21.” Everyone had a good laugh, but the new guy. As he was puzzling over what had just happened, someone shouted, “Number 3.” Again everyone laughed heartily. This continued to go on until he finally asked what everyone was laughing about. After having received the explanation, he thought he would join in the merriment, and shouted out, “Number 17.” However, not a soul cracked a smile. Again, he tried, “Number 15.” Again, no response. Now, he was completely confused. Swallowing his pride, he inquired as to why no one laughed, when he called out a number to which one of the men bluntly replied, “You just don’t know how to tell a joke.” Similarly, it could be said that some preachers just don’t know how to deliver a sermon.
Many years ago, someone asked the professor in one of my homiletics classes in what manner we should speak when delivering a sermon. The answer came back immediately and succinctly, “Use a conversational style.” On the one hand, I agree, but, on the other hand, not everyone knows how to engage in conversation. To some, their conversational style is mumbling. To others, speak so rapidly that their words run together. To some, it would mean being overly loud while others are barely audible. And many are mind numbingly monotone. Actually, everyone’s conversational style can be deficient at times. So, what are we to make of the oft repeated advice to preach in a conversational style? Generally speaking, it is good advice. However, it should not become an excuse for failing to develop skill as a public speaker.
Every public speaker has to recognize that speaking to a large group of people is not like speaking one person or even a few in private conversation. A sermon is an address. It is not like the give and take in personal conversation. Where elevated volume might be rude or even offensive in a private conversation, it is appropriate and often needed when addressing a group. There is simply more distance between the speaker and a large group of listeners that requires increased volume. Electronic voice amplification can resolve this problem to a degree. However, amplification will not suffice, if the speaker never varies his volume. Monotone is still monotone even at a higher volume. There are two critical aspects when it comes to volume. First, the volume has to be elevated overall whether naturally or by amplification. Personally, I have found that relying on amplification alone for the appropriate volume is not entirely helpful. I purposefully preach at a volume that is higher than what I would use in private conversation. This helps me maintain my enthusiasm and communicates a sense of urgency. Second, even at an overall higher volume, I vary my volume up and down from the baseline allowing me to emphasize important points. Younger preachers often find it unnatural and difficult to raise their volume for emphasis at the appropriate time. I also did early in my ministry. To overcome this, I would decide where I wanted to be emphatic in advance and place a note in my outline that reminded me to raise my volume at that point. After a while, varying my volume became natural, and the reminders were no longer be necessary. Work at varying your volume until it becomes natural. Remember, an increase in volume adds emphasis to what we are saying at that moment. Without it, you run the risk of losing the attention of listeners and failing to reach them with crucial information.
Besides volume, there are other factors involved in being a good public speaker. Your physical demeanor is important. I was taught to stand erect, with hands held at my side and not in my pockets. I’ve mostly overcome putting my hands in my pocket. However, I have to confess it still happens. Bad habits of this nature can crop up any time. When I began wearing glasses, my wife counted how many times I adjusted my glasses when I preached. It was a lot, something like 25 times or so per sermon. I solved that problem by switching to contacts. I never really got used to dutifully standing behind the pulpit. I tend to wonder, not verbally, but physically. I finally decided that moving about was my natural style, and I use it to maintain eye contact with folks on my right or left. I do have to guard against habitually unnecessary movement back and forth. Appropriate gestures are something that I consider very important. They need to become natural and something you do without much of any thought. However, care should be taken to assure every gesture is useful for emphasis or illustration.
Overall, my advice boils down to this one rule—be enthusiastic about your message. If we are not excited about our message as preachers of the gospel, how can I expect those who are listening to get excited about it? The way we deliver the message will determine, if we communicate excitement or not. And God’s word deserves to be presented in the most exciting and enthusiastic way that we can present it.