We recently watched a classic movie from before I was born. It was good, but it felt somewhat stilted. The camera position felt static, the conversation felt wooden, the timings felt hesitant. We could enjoy it, but we had to consciously accept the old fashioned feel. Today camera work is so much more fluid – close up, from a distance, stable view, hand held and gritty. Somehow today’s approach seems closer to human consciousness than the earlier attempts from Hollywood.
Here’s a quick question: does our preaching feel stilted? Do we sound slightly wooden, hesitant? Here are five quick suggestions to help…
1. Know the text as well as possible. Don’t go into a sermon with an okay awareness of the text. Know it better than you need to for this sermon.
2. Pray about your listeners and how they will best engage with the message. How will a guest hear what you are saying? How might a young Christian misunderstand? The better you know your listeners, the more you can target your presentation appropriately.
3. Appreciate the variety God has given us in the Scriptures. The Bible is not a manual. It is a rich and diverse collection of writings that tap into human emotions and experience on multiple levels. As preachers we should thank God that we don’t have to preach other “holy” books!
4. Become comfortable delivering your message. That involves planning for it to be communicable, running through it ahead of time, praying about its assimilation in your heart and life. When you are comfortable delivering the message you will have more bandwidth for adjustments during preaching, for clarification, for more effective communication, etc.
5. Watch and learn from preachers that communicate effectively today. There are some good examples of contemporary communicators that you can watch, analyze and learn from. Don’t copy, that will look stilted.
People can appreciate and benefit from an old fashioned feel in your preaching, but they have to choose to appreciate it. Why not pray about communicating as naturally and effectively as possible in this era?
What makes for effective delivery in preaching? Gone are the days of appreciating the diction and power of a voice fit for the radio, or the grand gesturing and stage presence of yesteryear. Today effective delivery has to be natural.
People want to listen to preachers that are genuine, honest and real. People resist the polished sales patter of a car salesperson, the reading of a script in a phone conversation, or the phony demeanor of an average stage performer. People definitely do not appreciate the ranting and pontificating of old school preaching.
So how can a preacher be natural in delivery? A deep breath and determination to relax doesn’t cut it. Here are five aspects of natural delivery that might take some work:
1. Natural eye contact feels unnatural. It is almost impossible to overstate the value of eye contact in spoken communications. You would not buy from someone who wouldn’t look you in the eye. Our natural tendency will be to find security in our notes and when we dare to lift our heads out of our notes we will naturally look anywhere but the eyes of those who are judging us. It feels unnatural to learn to linger long enough to make meaningful eye contact with someone in the congregation, and then move on to make meaningful eye contact with someone else. It may only take a second or two, or sometimes it takes a few more, but it is worth it. (And the opportunity will only increase when our note-reliance decreases!)
2. Natural sized gestures feel unnatural: size of gesture. If you plan your gestures you will probably look like a puppet. I am not advocating for planned gestures at all. But it does take some work to make gestures appear natural to our congregation. Generally speaking, the bigger the congregation, the bigger the gesture. A little gesture in a conversation (or preaching to a camera) will look ridiculous from seven rows back in a large crowd.
3. Natural gestures feel unnatural: direction of progression. Logically we think from left to right (in our culture). So the past is logically to our left, and time moves towards the right. Gesture with that logic to a congregation and it just won’t feel natural to them. They will interpret, maybe subconsciously, but there is a slight jarring effect. Learn to present from right to left as your reference moves from past to future, or from your first point to your later points, and your listeners won’t skip a beat.
4. Natural explanation can feel unnatural. In a conversation you can often say something once and assume it has been heard, registered and even imagined. Not so with a group. It is not about their individual capacity to comprehend, it is about the distracting effect of being in a group setting. For concepts to formulate in their consciousness, a group of people typically will need more repetition and restatement. Don’t fire off a concept and march on. Make sure you give it the words, and the time, needed for the concept to be heard, registered and grasped. Don’t hurl an illustration past your listeners. Do what it takes for the image to project on their internal screens with clarity.
5. Natural delivery takes unnatural attention. If you just do what you naturally do, how do you know how you come across? It takes effort to pray about your life and your delivery co-existing in a natural and spiritually healthy congruence. It takes effort to ask for specific feedback from a variety of listeners, prompting them to be really honest, so that you can actually know how effective your delivery is. It takes effort to get yourself preaching on video and take stock of your presentation.
I am not saying we should perform. I am saying that it takes some effort to communicate naturally and effectively. There is probably something for every one of us to improve. Just taking a deep breath and trying to relax will not make you communicate well (although it may help a bit).
Some comedians are hilarious on stage and then angry drunks in the dressing room. Are you the same you in conversation after church? Are you the same you when you close the front door at home? Performance is unsustainable. At the same time, effective communication is worth some conscious and prayerful attention.
Yesterday we thought about shifting weight between our standing legs and moving our eyes like we are watching a tennis match. There are two more aspects of delivery that can really become distracting. Not if we do them once or twice, but once they become repetitious habits:
3. Simon Says Touch Your Face, And Again
Some preachers get into a semi-rhythmic obsession with some sort of facial touch. I know it is probably not proper to touch your face at any point, but let’s be realistic, we probably will. But if it becomes a repeated thing, listeners will get distracted. I have a year round issue with allergies, so an itchy nose is a regular challenge when preaching. Others seem to have itchy glasses, or ears that need stretching, or disappearing teeth that need confirmation of still being present, or a rebellious beard that needs to be kept calm. A movement repeated will mean listeners distracted.
4. Let’s Play Charades!
Whatever you call the game, you’ve probably played it. Words not allowed, nor noise, just gestures. And if the guessers don’t guess it, what do we do? Repeat the gesture. It’s like shouting the same thing louder through our hands. It doesn’t tend to work, but if you do it when preaching, it will grate.
Any repeated hand motion will be consciously or subconsciously noticed by at least some of your listeners. There are so many, and actually, all of them are fine. But any of them repeated will be an issue. There’s the spider on a wall mirror, the random point, the extended fist point with pen gesture (sometimes called the fishing rod cast off), the let me hand my words to you gesture, the elbows stuck to your hips T-Rex impression, or the tension in the hands werewolf, or the dead arm, or the Perspex screen around the waist stopping the hands coming above, or below it. There’s the fig leaf stance, or the unscrewing a light bulb motion, or the wringing out all moisture from the hand, or the . . . we could go on, but you get the point. It would be possible to get all these into one message and people wouldn’t notice. But get stuck on one of them for a few repetitions and they will certainly notice, and be distracted.
Apologies for no posts over the last three days. I was expecing to have internet access where I was, but didn’t.
I was leading a session on preaching with a great group of folks yesterday. We were considering what listeners value in a communicator. Honesty. Real-ness. Vulnerability. Eye-contact. Authenticity. I wonder if a previous generation might have listed different things? Good word choice. Presence. Style. Power. Attractive voice. Something else?
Perhaps authenticity has always been important, but it seems to be especially so today. People don’t want to hear well-prepared but trafficked truth. People don’t appreciate a presentation at arms length from Bible to listener, but by-passing the heart and life of the preacher. As has always been the case, good preachers are transformed by the text before offering the text to others.
All this does not mean that speakers shouldn’t present well, clearly, effectively, even powerfully. It does mean that every element of delivery has to be genuine, natural and authentic. And that’s one of the challenges of delivery . . . it is not natural to stand in front of a group of people and speak naturally. Hence the need to work on delivery to help it become more natural. As I tend to say in the delivery workshops I sometimes run – the goal is not to perform, the goal is to let the natural you come through!