Speaker’s Corner

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Over the years I have often been asked the equivalent of What’s your secret for public speaking? And I have been badgered to hold seminars or workshops in public speaking and sermons. The truth is that a short series in public speaking wouldn’t help much. The secret, if there is one, to effective public speaking is: (a) Doing a lot of it and, (b) getting a critique from someone who knows what he is talking about.

But I’ll admit that there is more to it than experience and correction. There are many principles and techniques that make a difference–sometimes a big difference–in the effectiveness of a public speaker. See the links at left for some ideas.

Experience is Golden

One of the best cures for stage fright is experience. I recall in one of my earliest speeches, my left knee cap was shaking. I hoped it didn’t show through my trouser leg, but later I noticed the shiver in the knee of one of my classmates. Stage fright is as natural as breathing when you are new at the game, and it doesn’t go away until you get some experience behind you. Actually, nervousness is a part of the stimulus that helps you stay intense about your speech and it is a good thing overall.

With experience, stage fright decreases and you can begin to think about your speech instead of your kneecap. In the end, it is the drive to communicate that overcomes stage fright. There is something in man that wants to give his ideas a forum. We want people to see what we see, to think the way we think, to conclude what we have concluded.

The hard part for a would be speaker is finding the venues in which he can gain experience. One of the best is Toastmasters International, but there are other social clubs that will offer opportunities to communicate and build up experience.

Church is a good place to practice as well. Sometimes the practice will be in a discussion group setting. Occasionally, you may even have a chance to make a presentation. Churches should do what they can to give speakers a chance to gain experience. I have known churches that gave men opportunities to give sermonettes, and as long as they are used as a teaching tool, they are a good thing. There should always be some kind of feedback system when sermonettes are used for training.

When you have had a chance to speak, seek out someone who can give you a helpful evaluation. This is one of the great thing about Toastmasters. Evaluations are built into the structure of the club. If you can’t find someone else to evaluate you, tape the speech and evaluate yourself.

Experience with evaluation. This is the way the great speakers develop.

Move it!

I don’t know if you watch religion much on television these days, but if you do, you may notice how many of the television evangelists are of the charismatic persuasion. The reason is the medium. Television is a visual medium, and the successful preachers move. The effect is probably stronger in person than on television, because the camera moves for you and you don’t have to move your head at all to follow the speaker as he moves. But whatever the case, movement is a major factor in holding attention. Monroe suggests that even random movement is better than no movement. It helps you drain off tension and it still tends to hold the eyes of the audience.

Most preachers in most churches are stuck behind a podium and the only things they move are their hands and arms. The guys who have no podium and move around have a distinct advantage. It is more than just a matter of catching the eye. Movement can signal changes in the content of the message. A move forward can suggest intensity. A move backward can say, let’s step back and think about his for a moment. A move to the side can signal a change of subject. On the other hand, accompanied by a few steps to the left, really underlines the fact that we are moving from one idea to another, or from one point in the outline to another.

Keep in mind that the eyes of the audience are important. If they are looking at you, they are more likely to be hearing you and paying attention. If they are not, you need to do something to regain their eyes.

But moving your body is only half of the equation. Your content needs to move as well. This is more difficult to illustrate than physical movement but may be more important. It is for me, because I do a radio program and moving my body doesn’t help much. When you are preparing an outline for a speech, you need a clear idea of where you are going and how you are going to get there. If you are a person people like to listen to, you may get away with a flow of random, loosely related ideas. But even so, you are better off if you have a goal and you move inexorably toward it. In some sermons, the only time an audience is aware of movement is when another scripture is announced. But this is usually an illusion. There is no reason why this scripture must necessarily follow the last one.

Monroe said that you should always think of a speech in terms of the response you want from the audience. Sometimes referred to as the specific purpose statement, this is one sentence, somewhere in the first minute of your message that tells the audience (and the speaker) what we are going through this exercise for.

And as you structure your outline, look for movement. There should be a reason why one point follows another. And each point should move your audience a little further toward the goal. The audience should have a feeling that, if I drift away here, I am going to miss something. Don’t tread water. Swim in a direction. Don’t plow the same ground over and over again. You probably can think of some more clichés to say what these say. The point? Move it. Move your body if can. Move your ideas no matter what.

The Integrity of the Speaker

There is no question that the same message, delivered by two different speakers, will be received differently by the audience. Several things make a difference. To be sure, technique is important, but technique can be manipulative. Some of the most terrifying cult leaders and the worst con men in history have had technique–even Charisma.

But unless you want to manipulate or be manipulated, there is something far more important to the public speaker. It is called integrity. Monroe noted that people never listen merely to a speech; they listen to a person speaking. He thought that a man’s words and manner mirror what he is, the self and the expression can never be divorced. This is probably true, but one wonders if the German people realized the true self of the Hitler they voted into power. In the normal course of events, people are going to listen to you as a person, and if your words don’t match your character you can do no good.

The word integrity comes from the Latin word meaning entire. What we are interested in here is the whole person. Integrity is defined as: firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values; the quality or state of being complete or undivided.

Anyone who hopes to speak in public needs to give careful attention to who he is, what he stands for, what he really believes. We need to recognize the difference between what we lightly hold as an opinion and what we will go to the wall for. And we need to be careful what ideas we risk our integrity for.

We need to be especially careful to be scrupulously honest in the presentation of facts or arguments. Suppressing facts that are contrary to your case or misquoting sources may work in the short term, but once found out will destroy your effectiveness forever. So will the dogmatic presentation of arguments that cannot finally be proved.

Be very careful never to pretend to knowledge or experience. This doesn’t mean you can’t speak until you are 50. But it does mean you speak with care and humility. And don’t pretend to speak for God unless He explicitly tells you to…personally. And then expect to be disbelieved. Jeremiah was.

The Origin of Ideas

Once, after I had delivered what I thought was a rather commonplace observation as a part of a funeral message, two friends of mine who were both ministers came to me and wondered where on earth I kept coming up with these ideas? All I had said, as we stood standing at the grave side, was that the cemetery is not a place of death, but a place of love. Just look around you at the flowers, the careful maintenance of the grounds, the expressions of love and respect on the tombstones. Where would you go to find more love concentrated than in a cemetery. Why on earth people should fear graveyards has always been a mystery to me. No demon could ever be comfortable in a place with so much love expressed.

But my friends did make me think. Where do my ideas come from? That particular idea had occurred to me first in, of all places, a pet cemetery. Standing by the grave of my faithful old bird dog, I looked around and saw more love than I had seen in a very long time. People’s pets do become a part of the family it seems, and they can’t bear to throw the carcase of a faithful friend on the trash heap. But even then, I had only answered the question of where the idea arrived, not where it had come from.

My friends thought there was some great mystery to the acquisition of ideas. But ideas come by me unbidden all the time. All I have to do is grab them and apply them. But I don’t think ideas can find much room for development in uneducated or uncurious minds. I am not necessarily talking about formal education, although that is important. I find educated people can be as devoid of ideas as uneducated people for that matter. But there are many ways to learn about the world, and most of them do not involve formal education.

Most of the interesting people I meet are well read and have been exposed to a wide variety of experience in life. Recently on a cruise I was lucky enough to be seated for dinner with a gentleman who had commanded a British PT boat in the far east during World War II. The British boats were steel and larger than the American version, and this fellow had commanded a squadron of them. Every night at dinner we plied him with questions about his travels and his experience. He was not a garrulous man and it would have been easy to let him sit quietly and let the rest of us talk. We could have bored him stiff with our stories. Instead, we drug his stories out of him piece by piece, learning in the process why he was hard of hearing (a bomb had gone off next to him and ended his hearing in one ear).

Now I never know when an idea I picked up at the dinner table on that cruise will come rolling back to me when I am trying to find a way to get an idea across to an audience, but I can be almost certain that it will. That could never happen, though, if I had been talking instead of listening. You will not run into that many interesting people in your life. When you do, you must take full advantage of it, because listening to interesting and experienced people will make you more interesting.

And because we don’t meet that many interesting people, we need to go looking for them on the shelves of the library. You will find a few of them on television, but television is aimed at the popular (read, lazy) audience. And you are stuck with whatever the producers want to show you. At the library (or Amazon.com) you get to choose the intelligent, interesting people whose acquaintance you want to make. Use television for light entertainment. Use books to develop an idea data bank.

The value of formal education is discipline. There is a set of books you need to read. Formal education sees to it that you read those books. If you have the personal curiosity and discipline to read the right books, you don’t need a formal education to be interesting. But one way or another, you have to read. People who don’t read make boring speakers because they usually have no original ideas.

The “Want To”

I quoted an authority who opined that the three most important things for a public speaker are:

  1. Have something important to say.
  2. Want someone else to understand or believe it.
  3. Say it as simply and directly as you can.

It goes without saying that if the first item is not in place, then the next two hardly matter. But the second point is closely related to the first. In general the desire to communicate an idea is directly proportional to the importance of the idea to the speaker. But not always. Some people simply lack the desire.

In all my years of teaching speech, there was one thing I was never able to do. I could not make a man want to communicate. I recall a football coach once making a similar observation. A man could have all the athletic skills to play the game, but if he didn’t have desire, he could never become a great player. He would choose a player of mediocre ability and great desire anytime over a great athlete who couldn’t be bothered. This was the same coach who said that any player caught holding hands with a girl on campus would be dropped from the team. A football player in love isn’t worth a hoot, was his loudly voiced opinion.

Frankly, I don’t know why some students bothered to take the public speaking course unless it was just the thing to do. There is a proverb about it: Wherefore is there a price in the hand of a fool to get wisdom, seeing he hath no heart to it? (Proverbs 17:16). Why pay the tuition when your heart isn’t in it?

I had a lot of success in those years of making effective speakers out of callow young men. But I could only help those who wanted to. Oh, they were nervous. They dreaded giving the assigned speeches. They made all the mistakes, but in the end, they wanted to be able to convey an idea from their mind to others, and to be able to change the thoughts and actions of men and women. And so they endured the fear, struggled with the assignments, winced when they got a tough evaluation, but they stuck with the program.

But in all my years of teaching speech, I have never been able to teach the want to. Not even to men who had heard the gospel and who could change lives with it if they cared. Maybe some people just don’t have the calling. Perhaps the desire is the mute evidence of the calling and the gift.

From the first time I stood in front of an audience, I wanted the audience to agree with my point, to believe that my argument was right, to be persuaded to my point of view. Or if my goal was solely to inform, I cared deeply that the audience would retain the information I had for them and make use of it. I hoped that my appeal to action at the end of the speech would actually change a person’s life.

I once had a friend in the ministry who hated to give sermons. I never understood him. To me, the chance to open the Bible and teach is mother’s milk.

When you care whether the audience believes or not, you will give more thought to the organization and structure of your speech. Not only that, but you will acquire a sense of urgency that the audience will recognize and respect. If they can see that you fervently believe in what you are saying, they will give you a hearing. They may not agree in the end, but at least they will hear you out respectfully. But if they sense that you don’t care, they won’t either. You would be surprised how many people can sit through a sermon and not be able to tell you what it was about.

But then, if you didn’t care about public speaking or preaching, you wouldn’t be reading this, would you? What you have to do is nurture that caring spirit. No one else can make you want to. It is worth whatever sacrifice you have to make to keep the flame burning.

I probably should mention that some audiences will make it very hard. Public speaking is communication, and it is a two way street. Textbooks talk about what they call the circular response. The speaker presents his ideas, watching the audience carefully. The audience hears, assimilates and responds (or not). The speaker observes the audience response and makes adjustments to the presentation. More than once in my career, I have backed up and covered a point the second time because I saw a puzzled look on the face of someone in the audience.

If you don’t care what your audience thinks about what you are saying, you don’t care enough to be up there in the first place. And there is no feeling quite like the feeling you get when you see the puzzled expression disappear and be replaced by a face saying quite plainly, Oh, now I get it. It is like hitting the sweet spot on a drive off the tee. It is one of life’s truly satisfying experiences.

But you have to want to.

Three Basic Rules

Alan Monroe of Purdue University said that there are three basic rules that guide a good speaker:*

  1. Have something important to say.
  2. Want someone else to understand or believe it.
  3. Say it as simply and directly as you can.

Over the years of teaching speech I have heard countless student evaluations of speeches that had a lot to say about demeanor. Don’t lean on the podium was always a favorite when we had a podium. I took the podium away, and the emphasis shifted to other things that distracted from the speech: pens sticking out of pockets, awkward stance, eye contact, organization, and a whole host of things that might turn the speaker into a great orator if he could just get them all correct.

But the three items listed above always seemed to me to be the heart and soul of good speaking. Student evaluations could help around the margins, but the reason the audience was distracted was because the speaker didn’t have anything important to say. That may be understandable when you have an assignment to fulfill, especially when you wait until the last minute to think about it. But frankly, the uncurious mind will rarely find anything important to say, and classroom evaluations can’t do much about it.

In some ways, I think telling the speaker when he is finished, You did okay on the speech, but what you had to say was not important enough for me to listen to it, just may be the best evaluation of all. For it focuses the mind on the important thing–do you have anything important to say.

This is not an easy change to make in a speaker, because it has to do with habits that are hard to change. To some extent, it has to do with the character and lifestyle of the speaker. I have not yet found a way to instill curiosity into an uncurious mind. But the one thing I can tell a person to do that may help is to read. Read widely. Read anything that holds your interest. If that happens to be a murder mystery, then read them. Good fiction helps build vocabulary and background in life situations. Even trash, well written, is useful, but it is a shame to leave the great literature unread. Why read trash if you have never read Pride and Prejudice, or All the King’s Men?

Historical novels paint in the background of history and help the speaker get a feeling for events without having to be bored to tears by slow moving and overly detailed histories. But there are also great histories that are so well written they read like a novel.

Years ago when I was working on my master’s thesis, I stumbled over a simple but profound truth. I read extensively on my topic, and then I began to write. After a while, I found I could no longer write. I would sit at the typewriter staring at the paper and nothing would come. So, I headed for the library and began reading again. Soon, new ideas began to flow and it was back to the typewriter. The truth is that if you don’t put anything in, you aren’t going to get anything out.

The biggest failing I see in public speakers, whether they be giving sermons or teaching classes is that they are not well read. Therefore, they don’t have very much to say. And then, when they run out of anything important to say, they don’t stop, but continue on into the fog.

If you want to be a public speaker, no matter the forum, ask yourself first if you have anything important to say. If the answer is no, then you need to be reading more. Whether you ever speak in public or not, if you have nothing important to say, you are not reading enough. The old saying among computer programmers is, Garbage in, garbage out. I have learned that the same thing is true of speakers. I will add, Nothing much in, nothing much out.

*Cited in Principles and Types of Speech, Fifth Edition, Alan Monroe, 1955.

Why Public Speaking?

Alan Monroe asked the obvious: Why do you think the president of the United States speaks to the nation rather than merely issuing a written statement? I know I was surprised after the invention of the cassette tape recorder what a powerful instrument it turned out to be. After all, if you have a set of ideas you want to communicate, a written paper can lay it all out in order. A person can read it more quickly than he can listen to a speech, and it is much easier to analyze. Later, I found myself wondering why people wanted video tapes when all the information was right there in the audio tape.

The answer to Monroe’s question is obvious when you think about it. All the information is not there in a written or aural presentation. This becomes very obvious in an exchange of E-mails. It is so very easy to be misunderstood because the E-mail contains none of the extra information provided by tone of voice and verbal inflection.

Communication between people contains a wealth of information beyond the raw words they use. Statements that make perfect sense when spoken can become confusing when written down. So much depends on how you say it. Body language is subtle, but understood by all at a basic level. We can tell by a persons movements if he is nervous or defensive. Most of the time we don’t think about it, but we know.

The pacing of a statement made orally can convey a meaning all its own. Is this the most important thing the speaker has to say, or is he throwing away the lines. I was listening to an inexperienced speaker some time ago and I notice that when he read the Bible, he rushed through the scripture reading. The rate at which he spoke said, Let’s get through this as quickly as possible so I can go on with what’s important. It is very common for speakers to lose expressiveness when reading aloud. And in fact, if you are reading something into the record, be it Scripture or a quotation from someone, it needs to be framed and delivered with special care. If you throw it away, the audience will tune you out.

It is a fact that an audience will hear less than half of what you say. They may stop mentally to think about your second point and miss the third. Or they may be annoyed by a crying child and lose their concentration. Or they may just drift away to something else entirely. If you doubt this just listen to people talk about the advantages of listening to a cassette tape the second time. Inevitably, they hear stuff they missed the first time through.

So give special attention to interpretive reading. You need to read more slowly than you speak and with more inflection and expression. Pauses, pacing, varied loudness are all important in making sure the audience grasps the significance of what you are reading.

And always remember that you are communicating with your audience in several ways, not just in words. They listen to your inflections, they watch your body language, they consider you a part of your message.

Sermon Notes

Some time ago, I was asked to provide some of my sermon notes as an aid to pastors serving in southern Africa. It had never occurred to me that others might find my notes helpful. I am used to giving a sermon (or a radio program) and having it go around the world thanks to the ubiquitous cassette tapes. But when the issue was posed, I could see that it would save some people a lot of time to be able to go straight to the notes instead of having to listen to the tape to see what I had to say. Because of a handful of forum members who could not attend the Feast with us last year, I uploaded three sermons to the forum. Some said it was fascinating to look at the sermon from the inside, as it were.

So, I am going to embark on a project of putting up my sermon notes in this corner of my web site for anyone who finds them useful. Starting with dates from November, 2006, the dates and titles on the sermons will match the recorded version. I can’t be certain of earlier dates, and I haven’t always put the title on the notes, but I will do my best. If anyone has any date/title corrections, please let me know. Also, these are unedited and unproofed. There was no reason since the final presentation was oral. And there will be material in the sermons that is extemporaneous and not in the notes. I apologize for the formatting. I am just copying them from WordPerfect into Microsoft FrontPage and I don’t have time to rework them. You may find it more useful to copy them as text files and open them in a word processor.

If you have comments or questions, see the contact link below.

November 11, 2006


Ronald L. Dart

Ronald L. Dart (1934–2016) — People around the world have come to appreciate his easy style, non-combative approach to explaining the Bible, and the personal, almost one-on-one method of explaining what’s going on in the world in the light of the Bible. After retiring from teaching and church administration in 1995 he started Christian Educational Ministries and the Born to Win radio program.

Click here for more posts by Ronald L. Dart

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Image Credits: Joel Montes de Oca