Chapter 35

How to Be Heard

Mastering five overlooked fundamentals of clear communication

Every summer you can find advertisements for basketball or football camps where big-name stars, for a fee, will instruct young people dreaming of athletic greatness. I wonder how much actual learning takes place when an all-star quarterback, who spends most of his time reading and outmaneuvering sophisticated defenses, tries to coach a junior-higher who's still trying to figure out how to grip the ball with hands that aren't quite big enough.

Often, I suspect, a similar effect happens to those who want to achieve superstar poise and eloquence in the pulpit. The key is focusing not on the dazzling techniques but on the fundamentals. Improvement comes from concentrating on the basics until we can perform them without conscious thought. Here are some fundamental areas that I find speakers may overlook as they try to improve.

Establishing a friendly atmosphere

To a large degree, the atmosphere we establish will determine how effective our sermon is going to be. Atmosphere is created by both our verbal and nonverbal messages.

I hear a lot of preachers, for instance, who are pretty sloppy in their opening comments. Perhaps it's because they haven't thought about them, but the mood they create right from the start makes it tough to benefit from the rest of the sermon.

Most of us know you don't want to start on a negative note. "I hope you all will excuse my voice this morning. I've had a cold all week."

Or "I really appreciate you all coming on a miserable, rainy day like today."

Or "Folks, we just are not getting enough people. When I stand up here and look out at this congregation… ."

What kind of impression do these introductions make on the listeners? Probably not a good one. You're not starting from their need. You're starting from your need. And that's not the way to fill people with anticipation for the Word you have to give.

This is why I enjoy starting with something like "This has been a wonderful week"—people want to know why it's been wonderful. They've had a lousy week. But there are few weeks for which you can't think up some way it has been good—"I haven't been sued a single time this week." And people laugh.

Or "I haven't had an automobile accident this week, not even a scratch." Little things like that. And then you can say, "No, really. It's been a fine week. I talked to some friends on the phone, and I was just reminded of the marvelous gift of friendship." This builds a friendly atmosphere. It conveys a feeling anybody can identify with. People may say to themselves, Yes, I talked to some friends this week, too. And sometimes I forget how good that is.

That's one way to help establish a warm, friendly atmosphere. There are other ways, but the important thing is to avoid opening negatively or from self-interest or insecurity. I want to communicate openness, that I'm here to serve these people.

This setting of the atmosphere, of course, begins before I speak my first word. We can show warmth by our demeanor on the platform. I try to pick out certain people and smile at them. This not only affirms those people, but it also shows the whole congregation I'm glad to be there.

People need to know how you feel before you start to speak. They want to know whether you're friendly or worried or mad. For me, the most difficult discipline in speaking is going in with the proper attitude. If I do not want to speak, it is so difficult for me to speak well.

Attitude control is essential. I must go up there with a friendly attitude, with a genuine desire to help those people, to give them something they'll find beneficial.

Encouraging participation, not observation

Another way we all can improve is by remembering that our goal is not simply to have people sit quietly while we talk, but to have their minds actively engaged by our subject matter. One of the keys to engaging people is using a conversational style. People listen to it without antipathy. When I raise my voice, people tend to put up a barrier to my increased volume. It's like that story about the kid who told his mother he'd decided to be a preacher.

"Why?" she asked.

"Well," he said, "if I'm going to be attending church all my life, I'd much rather stand up and yell than sit and listen to it."

The minute somebody starts yelling, people mentally distance themselves. Many preachers think they're doing it for emphasis, but generally it doesn't work that way. It deemphasizes.

If I want to say something really important, I'll lower my voice—and people will kind of lean forward to hear what I'm saying. In a sense, you're putting intimacy in a point by lowering your voice. You're saying, "This point means something to me. I'm telling you something from my heart."

What else can we do to encourage participation? Not necessarily by providing entertainment. If people are listening for the next story or next joke, I've become a performer. My goal is not to have people say, "Oh, you're such a great speaker." Then I know I've failed. If they are conscious of my speaking ability, they see me as a performer. They have not participated. My goal is for people to say, "You know, Fred, I've had those kinds of thoughts all my life, but I've never had the words for them. Now I've got words for them." Then I feel I've given them a handle for something. I've crystallized their thoughts and experiences into a statement or story and made it real for them. I've enabled them to give it to somebody else.

Obviously speakers must do the talking, but you let the audience "talk" too. You talk for them. If I'm making a controversial point, I'll say, "I can tell by your faces that you really don't agree with that." Or "You're saying to me, 'That's all right for you to say, but that doesn't fit my situation.' And I agree with you, because all of us are not alike."

What I've done is to say their words for them. They're thinking, He understands. He's not trying to poke this stuff down our throat. And they want me to continue the conversation. The key here is to make sure we see the process as a conversation and not a performance.

Ensuring I'm believable

I keep a constant watch on my believability. I've got to practice what I preach. Unless I can believe me when I make a statement, I won't make it.

Let's say I've had an argument with my wife before I speak. I will not use an illustration or statement about the marital love relationship because Mary Alice wouldn't believe me if I said it—and I wouldn't, either. Even though the statement is absolutely true, I could not say it and believe it.

Now, if I get with Mary Alice and say, "Honey, I was wrong" or "You were wrong" or "We were wrong," and we resolve the issue, then I can believe me saying some things about marriage. But I won't ask my audience to believe what I can't.

For me, this has meant giving up saying some things I would love to be heard saying. I can't effectively use material that has to do with sudden "miraculous" changes because I'm such a believer in process. While I believe in the miracles of the Bible, I have difficulty teaching people to expect them.

I can't be an inspirational speaker saying, "You can do anything you think you can do … and what the mind can conceive, the body can perform." That just isn't me.

Nor am I able to preach effectively on prophecy. While I can listen to others do it and appreciate their ability to do so, I can't do it believably because I have so many personal misgivings. I would not feel on solid ground. I'd have to quote someone else. As credible speakers, we've got to establish some authority or there's no reason to listen to us.

You can establish your authority by being a researcher, a Bible scholar, or by relating certain life experiences. But whatever your authority, you have to be careful of extrapolation—taking a principle from an area you know and trying to apply it to an area you don't know.

Extrapolation is where most speakers show their ignorance, and it undermines their genuine authority. I listen to some preachers extrapolate their knowledge into the business world, and they do it well. Others, however, tell a business story and they reveal how little they know about business.

So I'm careful when I extrapolate. Did I stick to things I know? When people see that I'm pretending to be familiar with something I'm not, that hurts my believability.

Making my voice inconspicuous

Few speakers have great voices, but most have ones perfectly adequate if people can understand the words. But I've found people are turned off by preachers who have a seminary brogue, who have developed an intellectual pronunciation, or who preach as if they were reciting Shakespeare. I immediately say, "They're performing."

If I'm conscious of a speaker's voice after listening for two minutes, then the voice has become a distraction. In the first two minutes, people should make a decision about your voice and then think no more about it. It's exactly like your clothing. When you stand up, if people are conscious of your clothes after once seeing you, there's something wrong with your clothes. You're either overdressed or underdressed. You're not properly dressed to speak. The same is true of the voice. It should come across as natural.

But there's more to it than that. The voice should always contain some fire—conviction, animation. Fire in the voice means that the mind and the voice are engaged. There's a direct relationship between an active mind and an active voice.

For example, if I am not really interested in a point I will leave it out, because my voice will be flat. My voice will say, "This point isn't important" no matter what my words say. It will tell the audience I'm really not interested. If I try to fake it, those who are sensitive will know it. So it's counterproductive to try to convince people of a point your voice doesn't believe.

I like to listen to people say certain words. The way people say the word God has always intrigued me. With some people, you can almost feel the relationship. It's personal. With others, it's majestic. With others, it's sharp or brittle. The fact that it is so different among different people means there is a different relationship and the voice is saying what the mind feels.

Fire in the voice has nothing to do with having a good voice or a poor voice. Some of the whiniest voices I've ever heard come from the best speakers. But audiences will listen to a poor voice, as long as there's fire, because as soon as the audience realizes the voice is real, they adjust to it.

Using gestures effectively

Gestures have a vocabulary all their own. The Spanish painter Goya charged as much to paint the hands as to paint the face, because the hands are the most difficult of all parts of the body to paint. Delsarte studied for several years how the hands show emotion. He got so good at it that he could sit in a park and tell whether a baby was held by a maid or its mother by the intensity of the hands.

I, too, have become interested in what hands say. When I watch a speaker, I watch the hands. I want to see whether gestures are spontaneous or programmed. I want to see whether the spontaneous gestures are repetitious or varied. My friend Haddon Robinson has one of the finest pairs of hands I know. I've tried to count the different formations his hands make, and the number gets astronomical. Yet they're absolutely spontaneous, and they're in harmony with what he's saying and with the sound of his voice. He has a large vocabulary of both gestures and words.

I've found speakers can't develop mastery of gestures quickly, but they can give themselves permission to improve. Here's one to start with. If you're going to be delivering a climactic statement, instead of getting intense too soon, it's better to relax your body and back away a half step from the audience. Then just before you come into the climactic statement, step toward the audience and straighten up. That way your body as well as your voice projects the message.

Gestures also include giving people your eyes. In speaking, eyes are almost as important as the voice. Everyone knows the importance of eye contact, but the temptation I have is to zero in on a few people up front who are attentive. Maybe I'm insecure, but it's easier to talk to those people. I have to remind myself not to neglect those out on the wings. Like the farmer who's feeding the chickens, you have to throw the corn wide enough for everyone to get some. So I tell myself, Remember the smaller chickens on the fringe. I want them to know I'm thinking of them, too.