Chapter 88

Skills of Oral Clarity

A clear manuscript is a far cry from a clear message to the hearer

To achieve clarity in preaching, you must consider the differences between the spoken and the written word.

As pastors we have to have people tracking with us. They need to follow us, know where we're going, and stay with us all the way.

I emphasize oral clarity, because oral clarity is a different animal than written clarity. Most of us have been trained to be clear in our writing, and when we write something, such as a sermon, we are writing it for somebody else's eye to read it. That's instinctive in us. We do not realize we are writing for somebody's ear to hear it. But oral clarity is vastly different, and there are certain skills of oral clarity that ought to be built into every sermon.

Consistently use key phrases

One skill is you should use the same key phrases all the way through the message. The words ought to be consistently used, so they rain down through the message. For instance, a recent message of mine was on the filling of the Spirit, from Ephesians 5, where Paul says do not be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit. After an introduction, I asked the questions I said I wanted to answer in the message: (I) What do we mean by being filled with the Spirit? (II) What does it look like? and (III) How do we get it? That was my outline.

When I came to Roman numeral two, I used exactly those words: What does it look like? And when I got to Roman numeral three, I used the same words: How do we get it? I was sure to repeat that same key phrase. You might think, Of course. But a preacher often won't do that. He'll say something like, " Okay, second, " and he'll give it. And the listener will say, " Second what? "

Now the speaker thinks he is absolutely clear, because on his outline he's got one, two, and three .

It's exactly the opposite of writing for the eye. Your English teacher would say to you, " You're using the same word too many times. Let's use some synonyms. " But orally you need to keep using the same word to make that audio connection.

I heard a speaker once who said, " In the comic strip Peanuts, there's one character who has to have his security blanket. Linus lives in an insecure world. He needs to have his security. We also live in an insecure world. We too desire security. The psalmists too lived in an insecure world. Many times a psalmist would cry out in fear, and God would be there to meet him. Psalm 27 is one of those instances. Let's turn to Psalm 27 and see how the psalmist views God and see what a difference his view made. " And all of a sudden the listener has spaced out. The listener has lost track and wonders, Where are you going with this message? You started out talking about security, and I've lost the thread.

The speaker doesn't realize he has started using words other than the key words. He should have said, " We live in an insecure world. The psalmists also lived in an insecure world. In many of the psalms, the psalmist would cry out " — not in his fear — " in his insecurity, and " — not that God would be there to meet him, but that — " God would be there to provide security. Turn to Psalm 27 " — not to see how the psalmist views God, but — " to see how the psalmist found God as his security. And we'll see what a difference it can make in our lives when we know God makes us secure. "

It's that tracking of the same word all the way through. Getting those words in as the message proceeds is one way of gaining clarity.

Ask a rhetorical question at transitions

A second skill, as you transition from one Roman numeral to another, is to use a rhetorical question. Ask a question your next point is going to answer. I could say, " We've seen what it means to be filled with the Spirit. Once we are filled with the Spirit, certain things begin to show up in our lives. " And I could begin to talk about what it looks like. But it's much better if I transition between those points by asking a question. I could say, " We've seen what it means to be filled with the Spirit. Now, what does it look like? How does it show up? "

Why is that a good oral clarity skill? Because the rhetorical question gives the listener a chance to refocus on the message. It enables the listener to think, I've been fogged out the last two or three minutes. But I bet for the next four minutes you're going to answer that question. It immediately brings his mind back to a point of, Yes, I'm with you again. Thanks, you picked me up again. It's a way of making the flow of thought stand out.

Restate what you've just said

The greatest skill of oral clarity is to restate something you just said. Immediately say the same thing in different words. Right away, before you go any further in the message, use other language to get across the same idea. Find different terms to get across the same concept before you say anything else. I just restated my definition three times.

Now you have to know where to do that in the message, and there are two major guidelines. One, use restatement any time you come to a new content point or a new concept. There are probably five or six times during a message when you do that. The second is any time you transition. So I will restate transitions as I'm moving to a new point, and then I will restate the new point.

For instance, in that message about the filling of the Spirit, when I asked those three questions — What does it mean, what does it look like, and how does it happen? — here's what it sounded like in the introduction:

As we look at this phrase, let's try to answer three questions. First, what does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? What does Paul have in mind? What's he talking about? What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? Second, what does it look like? How does it show up? When we are filled with the Spirit, what do we experience? What does it look like? Third, how do we get it? How do we make it happen? What do we have to do to be filled? How do we get it?

In other words, I'm taking time to restate how the message is going to flow. Structurally, if I am giving you previews or transitions or if I am bringing up a new concept, I'll restate that sentence several times.

State your point before you explain it

Often a speaker will ask a question and won't immediately answer it, because in his mind he knows he's building up to the answer. His subpoints are a progression of thought, which will eventually arrive at the answer. It will sound something like this:

What's the third reason we should be joyful in trials? The answer is found in verses 1 through 4. In verse 1 we see that Paul came to Corinth to preach the gospel. He came to this seafaring city to present the message of salvation. He came to the center through which the sailors and merchants of the ancient world passed, knowing that if the message of Christ could take root here it would spread itself out. But verse 2 tells us no one seemed interested in listening to the message.

Now what did I say was the large point I was after? The listener has to reach back and try to remember. He's thinking, Where are you going with this? You're not answering the question.

The speaker knows he's going to explain that the lack of anybody coming to hear him drove Paul into God's presence, and God comforted his heart and told him he was everything he was going to need. So the reason you ought to rejoice in trial is because that trial is going to teach you something about the sufficiency of your God. There it is down in subpoint D. The speaker thinks, I've inductively led you to it; the listener thinks, I lost you.

So a principle of oral clarity is: Look at your Roman numeral point; then look at your subpoints; if the subpoints are a progression of thought, you've got to go deductive on that Roman numeral. Your overall sermon pattern can still be inductive, but each Roman numeral has to be put out there deductively if its subpoints are a progression.

I keep saying, " if the subpoints are a progression, " because sometimes the subpoints are a list. I may ask, " What are the results of being filled with the Spirit? The first result of being filled with the Spirit is joy. The second result of being filled with the Spirit is gratitude. The third result of being filled with the Spirit is harmony in our relationships. " I have a list and don't need to deductively say, " You're going to see that there are three results and the three results are joy, gratitude, and harmony. " On a list I go inductive on my Roman numeral, and I let the Roman numeral point build as I go through the three subpoints.

The reason you can do that with a list is because every subpoint answers the question you asked. Every subpoint has the same key words: " The first result of being filled with the Spirit is " Every subpoint answers the question, and your listener doesn't get lost.

But when the subpoints are a progression, only the last subpoint answers the question. And orally, the listener cannot wait that long for an answer. So instead, you can say:

What is the reason you ought to be rejoicing in trial? Why should you have a sense of anticipation if you encounter some difficulty? Verses 1 to 4 are going to tell us it's because you will learn something of the sufficiency of your God. You will find out about God's ability to handle any situation. You will discover that your God is adequate for any circumstance. Let's look at it in verses 1 to 4. Notice how Paul says he came to Corinth

Now they know where you're going.

So a principle of oral clarity is if the subpoints are a progression, the superior point needs to be stated deductively. If the subpoints are a list, the superior point can remain a question.

Before reading Scripture, tell the listener what to listen for

The fifth skill of oral clarity is, before you read a passage of Scripture, tell the listener the point you're going to read. I illustrated that previously: " Why should we be joyful in trials? What can we anticipate? It's the sufficiency of our God. Let's look at verses 1 to 4 to see how Paul found God adequate for any situation. " In other words, I'm telling you what you're going to find in verses 1 to 4.

Pastors unknowingly will ask a question and then will answer it by reading the verse. We'll say something like, " What's the third time we are susceptible to temptation? Let's read verses 19 to 23 to see. " We start reading, and hearers tune us out.

If we don't tell them the answer, they say, I can't figure it out. You're going to tell me when you get to the end anyway. But I can say, " The third time we are susceptible to temptation is right after a spiritual victory. In verses 17 to 24 Paul says he found his heart lifted up with pride as soon as he had preached the gospel to thousands. Let's read verses 17 to 24 to find how Satan can come to us at a moment of spiritual victory and somehow insinuate himself into our lives. " Now they know what they're looking for. So always tell them what they're going to find in the passage before you read it.

It's hard for pastors to do this. We expect the listeners, in five seconds of reading, to pick out something it took us four hours of study to discover, and they can't do it.

Use physical movement to keep the listener's attention

A final oral principle is that physical movement has a benefit to keeping a listener. If I have three things I'm going to cover during the message, my hand is going to move from one to two to three. In fact, my body will turn from one to two to three.

An interesting tip is to put the past on the speaker's right and the future on the speaker's left, because from the standpoint of the listener, that's the way things move. The past always moves from the listener's left to the listener's right. If you're counting off points, start from your right and end up on your left, because that's how the listener reads.

If you put these things together, you can be clear.

Donald Sunukjian is professor of preaching at Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, California. He has served as senior pastor of churches in Arizona and Texas, and taught preaching at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is a columnist for