Stand Up and Deliver
Connecting with your listeners is a vital part of your preaching ministry. Ray Evans says without it there is a risk sermons become boring and repetitive.
Sir Ken Dodd died on 11 March 2018, aged 90. At his height, and indeed down to old age, he maintained a phenomenal work rate.
But Sir Ken also had some great insights into communication:
“You’ve got 30 seconds in which to build a bridge.”
“You can’t do a show at an audience; you have to do a show with an audience.”
He was in a very different setting to ours as preachers and teachers, of course. But connecting to an audience is something we share, and it is often neglected in our training.
A few months ago several preachers from Grace Community Church had the opportunity to attend a training day with a guy who had been a stand-up comedian and these days gives public speaking training to all and sundry. The course was, very aptly, called, ‘Stand Up and Deliver!’
Not naturally gifted with quick-witted humour, we were all apprehensive.
We had to do a short talk and then receive feedback from him and others. It felt weirdly artificial yet totally stimulating when we had to do a talk in the style of another persona – salesman, President, children’s entertainer, Guru, sports commentator and football coach. We were well out of our comfort zones.
But he homed in on this topic of connection, asking the questions our audience are too polite to verbalise, such as, “Why should I listen to this?” “Why should I listen to you?” And of course the crucial, “So what?”
We often avoid these awkward questions by telling ourselves that it is God’s work to apply the truth to people’s hearts. Our role is just to be faithful.
Now, we don’t wage war as the world does, nor do we use manipulative techniques. But we do set forth the truth clearly – that is a great skill; and we do seek to persuade – another communication capability (see 2 Cor 4:2-6; 5:11; 10:3-5). Acts 14 tells us that Paul and Barnabas spoke so effectively/persuasively that a great multitude believed (Acts 14:1).
To communicate well involves anticipating the often unstated questions and objections an audience has, and then helping their reason, emotions, conscience and will sense the full force of what we are saying.
To connect and then communicate, we must choose words very carefully – words that seize and grip, words that give a ‘bigger than me’ feel to the dialogue, words that engender inquisitiveness, words that are well-structured, and words that lead to a decision or a call to action.
If a stand-up comedian has to take all this into account, surely as preachers of the gospel, we should excel as we communicate the best news imaginable.
Along the way he threw in some communication lessons to help us as we choose our words.
So, for example, in telling a story remember:
S = simple and not everything;
T = touching and emotional connection;
O = obstacle or point of conflict;
R = real – though it can be fictional as long as it is believable;
Y = you – it’s about the audience and something relevant to them.
STORY – yet many preachers find it hard to tell them, so here is a skill that might be worth improving on by using the acronym.
He also told us to remember the rule of three. It is as simple as A, B, C, not also D, E, F, G, H, and I. Three is a powerful, memorable and striking in the way that other number combinations are not. Two little pigs would have led to a wolf with a full tummy, but three and we have a happy ending. It is weird, I know, but it is just how words and brains work together.
He talked about the ‘KAPOW’ and asked us if we had thought much about this? KAPOW is simply something that grabs an audience and then touches them. For us, it must always be the Bible’s great truths.
Take-off and Landing
He then got us discussing sermon introductions and conclusions.
The Christian preacher and trainer of preachers, David Cook asks: “When does a Boeing 747, loaded with 400 passengers and hundreds of tons of fuel, need maximum thrust?” At take-off. Sir Ken Dodd knew that. But how many of us don’t really work at our introductions, lazily presuming our audience has come to hear us?
David Cook could’ve also gone on to ask, “When do most crashes happen?” During landing! So with many of our talks.
If introductions need to grab us, conclusions need to land us safely, and at the first attempt. Sermons shouldn’t be the ‘bump and circuit’ training that aviators practice. When they have real people on board they want the landing to be smooth. I have done far too many, ‘Finally-finally’s for my congregation’s well-being. Haven’t you?
And he emphasised that opening up a talk using illustrations and stories isn’t ‘filling’. Illustrations are vital connections that help convey the big idea, and answer the audiences “So what?” question. In our context they also can ‘keep afloat’ the Christian truths that otherwise might sink in the deep waters between the minds and hearts of our audience, and the world of the Bible.
All of this is important because far too many of us sit through what are, frankly, boring Bible talks. Now, the Bible is never boring, but talks (and thus the talkers) are the weak link – poorly communicated, drearily repetitive, lacking connection, but often indulged because it is a ‘Bible talk’ and it seems wrong to criticise.
Remember that Oscar Wilde, when asked about a report of an opening night flop of one of his plays, said: “No, the play was a success, the audience was the failure.” It is too easy to blame the audience for their ‘lack of spirituality’ when the fault may be ours.
At the end of our day, the comedian’s feedback about us was that compared to many groups he works with, we were already capable communicators, open to new ideas and willing to learn. Relief all round!
We all felt that we came away more equipped to effectively connect to our audiences. Is it worth you getting some help so you can better connect with your hearers?