Chapter 2

Sermon Delivery Affects Credibility

Audiences will connect with a preacher who is purposeful in body and voice

Preaching Today: When an audience assesses a speaker's credibility based on delivery, how much occurs consciously and how much sub-consciously?

Bob Parkinson: When a congregation is listening to a sermon they have a sub-conscious feeling about how the speaker is coming across. For example, listeners might think, "Gee, he's uncomfortable," or "She's angry or upset. " They wouldn't think, "He is not standing up straight, " or "...not speaking loudly, " or " not looking at me." Those observations are really conscious decisions--where somebody is looking, or how someone is standing. They detect the unconscious emotion: discomfort, ill at ease, anxious, angry, upset.

What should speakers do with their bodies and voices in the delivery of a message to enhance credibility?

How the preacher is standing or talking is important because the listeners are going to respond to those signals; the speaker must be conscious of not just the word, but how the word is being packaged. I use a phrase that I think sums it up nicely: "Whatever you do, do it on purpose." The preacher must pay attention to how they are standing, where they are looking, what they are doing with their hands, how loudly they are speaking and how they are constructing the messages they are delivering.

Where the preacher is looking is important because in our culture, if a speaker does not look at their audience they don't trust them; they don't believe them. Now, does that mean the preacher has to look at one person in the congregation the whole time? Of course not. But try to focus on people individually throughout the congregation. Here is an analogy that might help. If you were going to take a photograph of someone on the right side of the congregation, and you focused in on someone sitting way over to the left-hand side, opened the shutter of your camera and then just turned it around until you got to the right side of the congregation, you wouldn't have a picture. You would have a big blur. If you want focused photographs, you must click the shutter and then with the shutter closed, move, find somebody else; focus on that person and click the shutter again. So the first thing the preacher must do to enhance credibility is to ensure that they are making eye-to-eye, emotion-to-emotion, person-to-person contact with their audience.

The second step to enhancing credibility is to make sure that the voice is strong. Often because we are so used to talking across a desk or in a small room, we tend to have our voices down at a rather moderate level; and that's appropriate for a small room. However, when we get into a larger area, that small voice is not sufficient to carry. When a preacher increases the volume of his voice, not only does the voice get louder, but it gets richer; fuller. The inflection range expands dramatically, and there's a direct relationship between volume and inflection. If we are used to speaking in a "small room voice," and we're standing in front of a large audience, the result is difficult to hear, the inflection range is narrow, and it sounds boring. If we rely on a microphone to give us the volume rather than using our own internal energy to get that additional volume, what we end up with is "loud-boring." It doesn't help the congregation to follow the messages that we're delivering.

How does this specifically apply to credibility? If I'm speaking in a quiet tone with less inflection range, what are people assuming about my believability?

The audience's general perception given these factors is, "I'm not sure this person believes what they are saying. "This is something that we as preachers have to be very conscious of. Another factor in developing sermons is the actual reason for delivering the message. So many times we don't give as much thought to " Why am I saying this? " as we do to " What am I saying? " Now, the " what " is significant. But the " why " will also have a dramatic impact on the listener's reaction. For example, will the sermon be given to inform? Will it be given to elicit emotion? Will it be given to encourage reflection? These are very different strategies. When the preacher decides up front what the reason for the message is, it will help him pick and choose the words, the phrases, and the examples that will evoke the desired reaction or emotion. The preacher must ask himself not only, " What am I going to say? " but " Why am I going to say it?"

Let me go back to the physical presentation skills that we talked about a moment ago. We talked about eye contact and volume. One of the other elements that is important is stance. Often, we will have a stand or pulpit to preach from. What typically occurs when there is a podium on the stage is that the preacher will naturally lean on it. When this occurs, the audience's sub-conscious impression becomes, "Well, this really isn't that important." However, if the preacher balances their weight and ceases leaning on the podium, the audience's subconscious impression becomes, “What the preacher is talking about now is very important because they are in a performance mode."

I'm referring to performance in a positive sense, much like in a sporting event. You cannot play any sport well if you're off-balance. If you are delivering a sermon, and you are not perceived as being erect and solid in stance, the impression will be diluted. None of us would deliberately dilute the power of our message. Sometimes it just feels good to stand on one foot and then shift the weight over to the other, or to lean on the pulpit; but we must always remember when we're delivering a sermon, the mission is not to feel good. It is to effect that reaction, involvement, reflection, and emotion we talked about before.

Let's move now to the hands and arms. What can a preacher do in this area to enhance or detract from their credibility?

One of the biggest issues facing a pastor standing in front of an audience is what they should do with their hands. Consequently, what often happens is that the hands clasp together, in a limiting position. In conversation, most of us are animated. We become descriptive with our hands. When we're in front of a larger group of people, because of the adrenaline that's going through us, we often feel uncomfortable and tend to hold back on our hand gestures. We consequently put forth a different kind of personality then we would in a social setting.

What I suggest is when you are ready to begin the sermon, let your hands fall down at your side, at neutral. When you begin to talk, if you give yourself the license to move, you'll find the hands instantly moving away from the body, being descriptive. They will help the congregation to see, not just hear. When we're standing in front of a congregation, the energy that we feel comes from an adrenaline rush. If we let the energy work for us the way we do in everyday conversation, we become more expressive and more interesting to look at.

However, a preacher must be careful not to go overboard with hand gestures. If we fall into this trap, we could damage our credibility because it says to the congregation, "I am uncomfortable saying what I'm saying." If we as preachers are not seen as being at ease, the congregation becomes uncomfortable. If we cause the congregation to become uncomfortable, it will have a deleterious effect on the impact of the message. Congregations want the preacher to be strong. How do we create the impression of strength? Stand up straight. Use a strong voice. Let the hands work naturally for description and emphasis. Finally, look at individuals in your congregation as you speak.

Are there any other " credibility enhancers " that you would add to that list?

Yes, and that is we should be excited about what we're preaching. We can convey this excitement by utilizing the body language techniques we just discussed. When we're excited about what we're saying, we will excite our congregations. And that's our job.

One of the strongest recommendations I can give to preachers to increase the credibility of their preaching is to rehearse their sermons in front of a camera. Make believe that there is a congregation, and deliver the sermon to the pseudo audience. Then sit down and watch--you will see yourself as your congregations see you. Most of us spend the greatest portion of our preparation time on the content. Now, the content is certainly important. But the audience is going to assume that we will deliver the Word accurately. They will make judgments, however--rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly--on how the Word has been delivered. If we give ourselves the opportunity to see and hear ourselves the way our congregations do, then we can make the necessary changes.

How do these factors change with the size of the audience?

Well, one of the factors is that if you have a big congregation, physical moves need to be larger, so as to be seen by the people in the rear of the congregation. It's similar to the difference between acting on a stage and performing on a television program or a motion picture. On the stage, because of the great distances between actor and audience, the movement and gestures must be big. Whereas the television camera or the motion picture camera can come in close and, in effect, move the audience within a theoretical arm's reach of the actor, so the moves can be small. So, we have to make the adjustments based on the size of the audience.

Are there any common mistakes that detract from credibility that we haven't already addressed?

Yes, there are a few more that we should cover. Pacing is another problem that preachers must be aware of. Movement can be a significant part of the delivery of a message, if it is purposeful. But if the preacher starts pacing back and forth, that's going to diminish the credibility because the audience thinks, "I don't think they are comfortable. They are just running us off."

Holding notes is another potential problem simply because if we're holding something in our hands the chances are that we're going to play with it. If we're using computer generated visuals, slides, or overheads, we might use a pointer. This is another example of a potential distraction. If you're using a pointer, use it to point, put it down, and continue preaching.

Could holding onto the pulpit potentially be a distraction?

Well, most of the time we hold onto the pulpit because it's there. As soon as we do that, however, all of the energy that should go toward description, emphasis, and enthusiasm is wasted on the pulpit. Consider this alternative: put your printed material or Bible on the pulpit. Take just a half step back from the pulpit and distribute your weight evenly. Then, rest your hands on the shelf of the pulpit, without leaning on or grabbing onto it. This way, when hand gestures are called for, because your hands are not supporting your body, they will just move, and help to convey the impact of the message.

Can you offer any coaching related to how a preacher should read from his or her notes?

Yes. I'm glad you brought that up, because by definition preaching involves reading, either specific Scripture or our notes. Let's talk about notes first. When you look at your notes to recall what you want to say, pause briefly. If you talk while you look down at your notes rather than at the members of your congregation, your words will get lost in the notes. Also, voice volume tends to decrease because your eyes are focused on something that's a couple of feet away from you rather than on the rear of the congregation. When you're pausing to check your notes, at first the silence will seem long, but it won't seem nearly as long to the congregation. If they see you stop talking and refresh your memory, your actions will communicate, "I'm very comfortable here, and I don't have the need to keep talking all the time."

Another benefit of pausing as a preacher is that it gives your congregation a moment to think about what you just said. Whereas if you are constantly talking without pausing, the congregation does not get the opportunity to assimilate the message. Again, the reason we are preaching is to evoke a reaction, emotion, or reflection from the audience.

When you are reading text from the pulpit, and you near the end of a sentence, try to raise the eyes and deliver the last two, three, four words from memory. End your sentence looking at a specific individual in the congregation. Then go back to the text and begin reading the next sentence. If you implement this simple strategy, you will find yourself delivering your ideas at a manageable pace. Secondly, you'll be establishing credibility by finishing your thoughts. Very often, the ends of sentences are really the most significant parts; the powerful words reside there.

To recap, establish credibility by reading with a strong voice and looking at your audience often. When you're proclaiming the words, stand erect and keep your hands free so they can move in a natural way which will communicate, "I'm comfortable; I'm assured." Your message will be delivered appropriately and effectively if you follow these guidelines.