By Jim Tune
Little can create a more lasting and vivid perception of your church than the ability of its leaders and teachers to communicate well to groups of people.
A recent study conducted by AT&T and Stanford University revealed that the top predictor of professional success and upward mobility is effectiveness as a public speaker. Of course, “upward mobility” is not the primary motivation of the Christian leader. Our purposes are higher! Our goals are more important!
Most of us have experienced more than our share of boring messages and Sunday school lessons. Often this had more to do with presentation ability than with content. Maybe the speaker put us to sleep with his monotone presentation. Perhaps we were frustrated as the speaker’s lack of preparation became evident. Maybe we couldn’t read the small writing on the PowerPoint slides, which didn’t match well with what the speaker was trying to say anyway.
As a church planter, I have become keenly aware of the need for skilled and prepared communicators in the classroom and behind the pulpit. We live in a culture of heightened expectations. Seeker and believer alike have come to demand a higher level of presentation skills. When even the local car dealer or supermarket manager can be seen as articulate, personable, and persuasive in a TV ad, we no longer readily endure those who stumble over their words or can’t look us in the eye.
The leader who can’t communicate can’t motivate. The genius who can’t communicate is intellectually impotent. The church that can’t communicate can’t change the culture or effectively pursue its mission.
It’s true that most of us will not attain the presentation skills of the most superb platform speakers. Nevertheless there are some useful communication skills that all of us who teach can use to increase our effectiveness dramatically. At Churchill Meadows we reinforce the following five keys with preaching staff and teachers of all age groups. This is not a crash course on homiletics, but this helpful checklist can help move anyone’s teaching and preaching effectiveness from dull to dynamic.
Preparation and Practice
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld says, “I’ll spend an hour reducing an eight-word sentence to five words because the joke will be funnier.” How many hours will you spend to make a message memorable?
If you saw a Broadway show where none of the actors had practiced in advance, you would demand your money back. Too bad church members don’t get the same privilege!
A good presentation, be it a sermon or a Sunday school lesson, requires careful preparation and planning. Lack of planning is always evident! There is no excuse for “winging it.” The best speakers are always prepared for what they say, even if their demeanor suggests otherwise. Sure clues of inadequate preparation are talks that are too long, too detailed, confusing, vague, or boring. Here’s how to tell for sure a speaker hasn’t prepared: he doesn’t say anything important! To make the best use of time—yours and your audience’s—think through and practice what you will say.
Like athletes, those of us who preach and teach often develop some pregame rituals. At my first church, I prepared my sermon midweek. On Sunday morning I would arrive at the church building before 5:30 am, manuscript in hand. I would step to the pulpit in the empty auditorium and preach my sermon four or five times to an audience of empty pews. When it came time to preach I was able to rely on memory more than manuscript, and my preparation showed.
That doesn’t mean that all of my sermons were great—some of them were real stinkers. But at least they stank in spite of my best efforts. People always knew I had taken my best shot.
Clear Purpose and Structure
Make it easy for your audience to follow what you are saying. They’ll remember it better—and you will too. Here’s the $64,000 question for any presentation: what’s the point? Teachers who lack clear objectives for their lessons usually miss the mark.
Heaven help you if your objective is “to inform.” What does that mean? Doesn’t every speech inform, whether by design or default? Attempting only to inform is aiming too low. Why not use the opportunity not only to inform, but to motivate, encourage, and entertain?
As you develop your purpose and structure, begin by asking, “At the end of this message, what do I want listeners to think, feel, and do?” In other words, good speakers always connect with the head, the heart, and the hands. Giving people lots of information with little practical application is more frustrating than inspiring.
It doesn’t hurt to begin with an overt statement of purpose: “The purpose of today’s lesson is. . . .” It may not be clever, but it will increase the likelihood that you’ll actually fulfill your purpose. Let your audience know where you’re going.
Dr. John Lee, a management expert, demonstrates this in his workshops by giving groups of participants a 70-piece puzzle to assemble. One group gets a brief look at a picture of the completed puzzle; the other groups put theirs together without knowing what the finished product will look like. Consistently, the group that previewed the picture finishes first. Why? They already know where they are going.
New knowledge is much easier to absorb when a clear picture is presented.
Polite Regard for Time
History has no record of anyone who gave a speech that was too short, but we’ve all been part of an audience frustrated because a speaker talked beyond the allotted time. This problem seems to be epidemic among many preachers. Speaking longer than planned is rude. It suggests that the speaker and his or her message is more important than anyone or anything else in the program. Don’t get me wrong. The preaching of the Word of God is a noble endeavor, but it is not the only significant component of a worship service.
Bob Russell has a basic rule of thumb regarding sermon length. He suggests that speakers rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 (no one gets a 10). Let’s say you modestly decided you were a 7. Now subtract 1 from your number, which, in this example, would place you at 6. Now multiply that number by 5 and that equals the maximum length in minutes that you should speak (in this case, 30 minutes).
Start on time and stop on time. Not only will your audience respect you for it, but it will prove that you respect your audience.
Tell Me a Story
Jesus was the master storyteller. Few things connect with an audience better than a good story. People don’t remember your points; they remember your illustrations. If they can remember the story, you have a better chance they will remember the point. The appropriate use of stories will also provide your presentation with necessary change-of-pace moments to help your audience refocus its attention.
As often as possible use original memorable stories—not sappy, “chicken soup” style tales of unlikely veracity that have accumulated in your in-box. This will also ensure your avoidance of overused stories that are currently “making the rounds.” We’ve all experienced the disappointment of attending a much anticipated conference only to hear the speaker lead with an overused, overcirculated, overdownloaded story. It’s a credibility killer. (That goes for downloaded sermons too!)
Ease Up on the PowerPoint
I should preface this by reminding readers that I am a relatively young, technically savvy leader of a three-year-old church plant. We use multimedia all the time. That said, I am convinced that the misuse and overuse of technology can frequently detract from, rather than enhance, a speaker’s presentation. Slides are no substitute for preparation or content. Movie clips can be quite useful but are often not nearly as effective as a well-told story that allows listeners to “see the movie” in their heads.
I visited a church recently where the preacher used more than 70 slides (too many) during a 40-minute (too long) message. Make technology a support to your message, not a crutch.
We all can get better!
As a teacher and a preacher I am a work in progress. So are you. That’s good news because it means that with practice and focused attention to improvement we can all get better. Our message is the most important news in the universe. It deserves a well-prepared messenger!
Jim Tune ministers with Churchill Meadows Christian Church in West Toronto, Canada, and serves as director of the national church planting organization Impact Canada.