The following guest sermon was submitted by ULC minister Rev Brian T. Lees. All ULC Ministers are invited to contribute their own sermons for consideration/publication. To submit a sermon, please email it to email@example.com.
I have been in front of an audience in some form or another almost my entire life. I started as a musician (drums, keyboard, and B Flat brass). I also have acted in my past as well as working full time as first a clown and then a magician.
I bring all my experience with me when I am called to speak, preach, or perform. It might surprise you to learn that many theater and drama skills (tone of voice, gestures, and stage presence) play a major role as we share the word with our audiences.
I did not compile this listing for profit. In fact, I do not charge for it and openly invite you to share if you feel the information is valuable. After you read through these, if any of these tips enhanced your message delivery, the time spent compiling and producing this document was very well spent.
1. Projection and Communication
When you work in show business you quickly learn that people in the back rows must also experience what the people in the first few rows do. Some very important elements come into play:
Projection: You must direct your comments out to the audience. Your voice will travel in the direction you are looking. If you drop something and continue to talk as you bend over to pick it up, your voice travels to the floor. The first few rows, if able to hear, will understand what you said. But people in the back have no idea.
Do not be afraid to speak out to the audience and then move to the side and repeat yourself. You are making sure everyone hears you. Those who watch you repeat will be patient and understand you are trying to involve everyone.
Communication: Speak at a pace that people can hear and comprehend what you are saying. There are reasons why auctioneers do not make good preachers. Keep this in mind if you are delivering the same message to different services that day. You are familiar with the material. And there will be a natural tendency to speed up your delivery. DO NOT. People in your audience will be hearing you speak for the first time. Try your best to keep slang and acronyms out of your message. If you have to use them, take the time to explain what they are. Do not allow these words to take away or distract the content of your message.
2. Work the Entire Area
I remember attending a lecture when I was in college where the professor walked to the podium in front of the room. She opened her notes and began the lecture. The podium was centered with a wide space on either side and plenty of space between the podium and the front row. She did not move during the entire lecture. It was as if she was hiding and did not want to step out and engage the audience. Twice during the lecture, she turned around and made a couple of notes on the whiteboard behind her. When the class was over, she gathered her notes and walked out of the room. Many of us have attended presentations like this. The content and event may be different. But the individual presenting was not animated. Like a second-grade teacher reading to the class, the individual just stands there and delivers the information.
Another professor lectured in a different posture. His delivery was a combination of talking behind the podium, walking in front, strolling from side to side, and openly engaging the audience. When he made notes on the white board he turned around and did not speak as he wrote. Then he turned around, stepped to the side, pointed to the notes, and continued his presentation.
One of the key elements of theater training is not to allow props, furniture, and other objects to become a barrier between you and the audience. Do not allow the podium, table, music stand or anything else to become a shield you appear to hide behind. Make sure there are places in your notes that allow you to get out and move around the presentation area.
If there is space around you, do not be afraid to work with it. Do not hide during the entire delivery behind a podium, or another prop. If you are working at a table in the middle of the room when someone enters you do not just raise your head and speak. Most of us put down what we are working on and step around the table to greet them. Our movement helps them feel welcome and initiates a connection. The same impact will be experienced by your audience.
3. Engage the Audience
Maintaining a connection with the audience involves many elements. There are a wide variety of books published on public speaking. They all present valuable information. However, there is one key element they all share. You must establish and maintain a connection with the audience.
One way is to exercise the audience. I am not talking about “everyone stand and jog in place”. I am speaking of having the audience move or jointly participate. One of my messages opens with my personal reference to a low tire. I mention the “ding” I hear and the “low tire pressure” light on the dashboard. I begin talking about an errand I was running when suddenly: ding, ding, ding, ding, a low tire pressure light on the dashboard came on. At this point, I ask the audience to raise their hand if the tire pressure light has come on while they were driving. Many of them raise their hands. Some even nod their heads at the same time. Their response identifies two things. First, it is a visual to me that they are listening. I know that, from their raised hands, my audience and I are connected.
You also need to set up elements of your delivery. The most obvious is scripture. Before you read or speak the scripture you should take the time to inform the audience what was taking place. Remember, many are not as versed in the Bible as you are. Some need you to set the scene up for them before you present the scripture. If you use, and we should use real-world examples, take the time to paint a clear picture of the setup. Describe the situation or event to the level the audience can relate to it. In many instances, you can ask the audience if they or someone they know experienced it. One pastor told a simple story that had a happy ending relating to his message. At the end, he looked at his audience and asked if she could get an amen. If your message focuses on God’s love you can ask them to turn to the person next to them and tell them “God loves you”.
Some project an image and make a few comments about it. They ask if anyone had experience with this situation. This usually is the setup for a joke that leads up to another part of the message.
One way to get your audience involved is to work with current events or situations. Your message might be on violence and God’s approach to it. You can mention a local news story involving violence. Then turn their attention to: Peter 3:9: Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may
inherit a blessing. At this point, you may also want to insert a prayer for those involved in the local news incident. Then, move on with your message. Your audience can relate to the local situation, and it opens the opportunity of approaching violence through Peter’s scripture.
The more you can get your audience to relate to your comments, the stronger your connection. Prompt them to acknowledge with raised hands. If your point is strong enough ask for an amen. Entice them to move and lean into your message. Establish that valuable connection and then take action to maintain it.
4. Use Facial Expressions and Body Language
We are not robots. Our tone of voice, enthusiasm, and gestures help make our presentation realistic. Do not be afraid to use expression and movement to help enhance your delivery.
If your message involves a question, take a moment to draw your head back. Pause for a moment to show a questioning expression. The moment does not have to be long. Just long enough to complement the question. Then respond with the answer.
One can say, “I don’t know”. This comment can be delivered just by speaking. It can also be delivered with open hands. I have seen someone open their hands and shrug their shoulders as this was spoken. Simple body language can add a lot to your message.
There are many elements we can use that make our delivery worth paying attention to. The tone of voice, body movement, and gestures help add emotion to our comments. The last thing we want our audience to witness is our walking out, speaking in a monotone, and reciting information. We need to take action to engage and (pardon the expression) entertain our audience.
Facial expression, body language, and gestures can tell an entire story. Using them along with your spoken word completes the entire delivery. You are employing all skills to make your statement. You must be careful to keep your gestures, and body language realistic. It can be easy to over-exaggerate. When you do, the movement seems tacky, overplayed, and loses most of its effect.
When you use body language and facial expression be careful not to just toss them away. When speaking with someone face to face and they ask where the door to the hallway is I tell them and quickly point to it. My response would be different in front of an audience. I would tell my audience where the door was. I would also point and hold the point for a moment. I would need to give them time to see my point and allow them to comprehend. If I just point and immediately drop my hand, I have tossed the gesture away. Many would not have had time to catch it and absorb what I was saying and doing. I have used mirrors to help monitor my rehearsal. They allow me to check my body language, expression, and gestures. Be patient with yourself. With practice and an open mind, these enhancements will seem and appear natural.
5. Pause to Help Emphasize
A simple pause can have the impact of a major loud noise. Speakers pause when they need to help emphasize a point. When we quote scripture we need to use a small pause once we identify that passage. The pause is not long. Just make it a point to take a breath once you name the scripture.
Inserting a pause after making a strong point also helps etch that point in the minds of your audience. If you want to you can repeat the point again after the pause and move forward.
You may have heard the phrase “give your audience time”. If you generate a laugh during your presentation, pause and allow the audience to enjoy the moment. There may be times when a pause after you speak a question that helps draw the audience in to hear what you might say next.
If you involve the audience asking for a raise of hands for those who have experienced something, pause. If you use a phrase such as “many of you…” take some time to step up and look over your audience. You are delivering a message. But you are also postured as a teacher standing in front of a class. Do not just speak to the back wall. Make eye contact. Give them time to react to something you may ask or say.
Take your time and work “with” your audience. There is a difference between sharing information and being lectured to. Do not just run on through your message without initiating and maintaining the connection with your audience.
6. Anticipate Questions
When you read through your message make notes of questions that may come up. The last thing you want is for someone to ask the person next to them “what did he/she mean”. If you notice a gray area or think someone might question one of your statements, take the time to explain.
When you use a story or parable in your message, take the time to set it up. Let them know what was happening or what took place as the story unfolds. Remember, that most of your audience is not as well-read as you are with the Bible. Taking time to paint a picture of what took place, the environment, what was happening or other information helps your audience understand.
In the end, your message must be clear teaching. However, there are times when I use a question at the end to spark their thinking. My message “Are you being called” ends with that question for my audience to think about. I follow that up by asking when they are called and how are they going to respond.
Often ending your message with what I refer to as an active question, postures your audience to focus on the message. It can help them mentally review some of the content as they carry that question forward with them.
7. Rehearse but Watch Your Delivery Speed
No one should step into a message without preparation. Your preparation involves many elements. I want to focus on one common mistake, or fatal habit we can easily fall into. We repeat the message many times over as we rehearse. If you are called to preach more than one service you will present your sermon two or maybe three times that day.
There is a natural temptation to take short-cuts. We allow ourselves to think the audience will follow along if we tell a shorter version of part of the message. Or, we have repeated it so much that a lot is second nature. We tend to rattle that off without regard to the context for our audience. When we do, many people will overlook, ignore, or not pay attention to parts of your delivery.
You are sharing a message that is important. No part of your delivery should be considered transitory. And, if we just rush along, take short-cuts and expect them to follow along, we are depriving them of the chance to listen. Your entire audience must feel and experience your message as if it was the first time you delivered it.
8. Overheads and Pictures
Using overhead projections can be a major plus in your delivery. There are two postures presenters use overheads:
Read/Follow along: This is the best overhead to use with scripture. Everyone attending will not have a Bible with them. Letting your audience follow along as you read is a great touch.
The problem is that many will use a read-and-follow approach with other elements. But they will read the overhead word for word to the audience. This is not scripture. Those taking up time, adding the overhead because they have nothing else, or just because they feel they have to show something are not complimenting their delivery.
Enhance delivery: Using graphics, or overhead projections that complement what you are saying is the best. I listened to a pastor talking about Adam and Eve covering themselves in the garden. When he mentioned they were embarrassed he said he would have covered himself a lot better.
The image projected was a person completely covered with grass, from head to foot. When he made his comment he paused, pointed to the graphic, and allowed the audience to comprehend what he was saying. The audience enjoyed a short laugh, the graphic went away, and he continued his delivery.
Use graphics and overhead materials to enhance your delivery. Make them relevant to your message. Be sure you are using materials that are not copyrighted. Take the time to make notes of where you obtained the material. It is sad that we are preaching God’s word but still have to take steps to protect ourselves from those types of people.
9. Ask for Help
There are plenty of sources out there you can turn to for help. Share your message with another clergy for their recommendations and opinion. If you have a few in the congregation, you feel comfortable with you can ask them. Keep an open mind. Just because someone tells you that you need to make a change, consider it. If it does not feel right, ask others for their opinion.
Remember you are speaking with different individuals. Each will have their own opinion and possible suggestions. Often it is best to get more than one idea written down on paper and then look at them and select which one, or blend of them will enhance your delivery more.
Beyond special friends and clergy, you can turn to others. I refer to this as reaching outside the box. If you have a drama coach in the congregation, you can approach him/her. Or you can speak with a drama teacher at one of the local schools. I have a few friends on the Internet that I can turn to for suggestions and ideas.
Do not hesitate to be your own critic. You know your own potential better than others. Record yourself and then review it. Review it in different ways. First, listen to the entire content. Did you express what you wanted? Was your point compromised? By that I mean did you open with one point and meld it into something different?
Was your delivery pace one that others can follow along? Were the areas you openly tried to engage the audience? Were the images and overheads effective in bringing out your point? Was the scripture you used accurate? Do not mention Mark 5:3 when the scripture was actually Mathew 25:40. (I know those are completely different and not the same book.) I am trying to make a point. If someone looks it up, you need to be accurate.
Did you speak out to the audience? Remember your voice goes where you are looking. If you are looking down reading, your voice will not travel out towards the back of the audience. Did you clear up the acronyms you used? Did any questions come up that you did not include content to address?
Don’t forget to turn to God. The Bible is packed with scripture advising to turn to God for help and support. I have spent time in prayer and had a few valuable ideas come to mind. While I am on this subject, be sure to give thanks for the opportunity to preach. And, when you are finished give thanks again.
10. Back Up and Record
One of the most important tools we have is our library and backup. Too many just file the notes from their sermon in a folder and leave them there. I suggest you need a better-detailed backup than that. Five or six years down the road, could you deliver the same message just from those notes in the file? You may be able to deliver a message, but chances are it will not be as good as the original you worked so hard to perfect.
My system consists of documentation, audio, visual and personal notes. I do not use any of my rehearsal recordings. I prefer to record the message as I deliver it to a live audience. I also keep my documentation used that day. My system is extensive but simple:
Documentation: The printed version of my message is kept in a file. Along with any notes I made after viewing the live delivery. Contained in those notes is the location of the audio/visual file.
Audio/Visual: I record my delivery. That recording is transferred to a DVD for me to keep. Do not just push the file to a DVD and assume it can be opened. Test the file to ensure your computer will be able to open and run the file.
If someone asks me to repeat my “Have you been called” sermon based on the book of Jonah I first turn to my hard copy file. That gives me the printed sermon and any notes I made when I reviewed the final presentation. The notes in that file also point me to the location of the DVD.
At that point I have a printed version of my message, the audio and visual of the delivery. I can also review any notes I made. This puts me in the best posture of delivering my message as close to the original as possible.
Ask members of a congregation about their pastor/minister. You will learn that there are a few characteristics that identify a few over all the others.
The better-viewed pastors/ministers use everything they have to deliver their message. They employ tone of voice, gestures, constructive overheads, real-world/live examples, and move the entire area as they deliver. Their audience can relate to the message and use it in today’s real world.
An unidentified quality that you may hear is that the pastor/minister seems to be having fun. He/she enjoys preaching. They smile and have a fantastic connection with their audience. This comes through with their tone of voice, relaxed posture as they deliver, confidence in the materials, and their overall facial expressions.
What you need to understand and accept that no one is a natural. If you hear someone say you are a natural in front of an audience you should be able to trace that back to events in your life that postured you that way. We all acquire skills as we are exposed to other deliveries. We may not sit back and make mental notes. But there will be a few things that creep into our delivery. The best I can explain is that you saw it once, it made an impact, and you allowed it to become part of your presentation.