Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content

Skill Builders

Home > Skill Builders


The Dress of Thought

Improving your way with words.
The Dress of Thought
The language of effective preaching should be the language of stimulating conversation between thoughtful people.

The preacher of Ecclesiastes waited until his conclusion to write down his credentials: "Not only was the Teacher wise" he says with unsettling candor, "but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true" (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10). To impart his knowledge and to come up with just the right words, the ancient preacher evidently wrote a manuscript.

Not all preachers write out their sermons, nor do preachers who write out sermons write out every sermon, but the discipline of preparing a manuscript improves preaching. Writing scrapes the fungus off our thought, arranges our ideas in order, and underlines the important ideas. "Writing," said Francis Bacon, "makes an exact man exact in thought and in speech."

An expository preacher professing a high view of inspiration should respect the power of words. To affirm that the individual words of Scripture must be God-breathed, but then to ignore our own choice of language smacks of gross inconsistency. Our theology, if not our common sense, should tell us that ideas and words cannot be separated. Like Jell-O, concepts assume the mold of the words into which they are poured. As pigments define the artist's picture, so words capture and color the preacher's thought.

The sage of Proverbs compares a word fitly spoken to "apples of gold in settings of silver"(Proverbs 25:11). "The difference between the right word and the almost right word,"wrote Mark Twain, "is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." The English poet John Keats was keenly aware of how words shape ideas. One evening as he sat in his study with his friend Leigh Hunt, Hunt read while Keats labored over a poem. At one point, Keats glanced up and asked, "Hunt, what do you think of this? 'A beautiful thing is an unending joy.'"

"Good,"said Hunt, "but not quite perfect."

There was silence for a while. Then Keats looked up again, "How about this: 'A thing of beauty is an unending joy.'"

"Better,"replied his friend, "but still not quite right."

Keats once more bent over his desk, his pen making quiet scratching noises on the paper. Finally he asked, "Now what do you think of this? 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever.'"

"That,"said Hunt, "will live as long as the English language is spoken."

Most of the Scriptures that we love best express God's truth in memorable language—Psalm 23, 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 8, John 3:16. Even though Paul disdained eloquence as valuable in itself, he wrote his inspired epistles in inspiring language. While a painting such as Rembrandt's Christ at Emmaus can leave us speechless, anyone who generalizes that "a picture is worth a thousand words"has never tried to capture John 3:16, a twenty-five-word sentence with a picture.

There are bright words, as brilliant as a tropical sunrise, and there are drab words, as unattractive as a country bus station. There are hard words that punch like a prize fighter, and weak words as insipid as tea made with one dunk of a teabag. There are pillow words that comfort people and steel-cold words that threaten them. Some words transplant listeners at least for an instant close to the courts of God, and other words send them to the gutter. We live by words, love by words, pray with words, curse with words, and die for words. Joseph Conrad exaggerated only slightly when he declared, "Give me the right word and the right accent, and I will move the world!"

"But language is not my gift." That is the protest of a one-talented servant in the process of burying his ministry. Gift or not, we must use words, and the only question is whether we will use them poorly or well. If you're willing to work at it, you can become more skillful with them than you are. If you compare yourself with C. S. Lewis, Malcolm Muggeridge, or Philip Yancey, you may feel like declaring bankruptcy. Let those artisans provide an ideal toward which you can move. But in every sermon you can strive to be clear and exact in what you mean.

Our choice of words is called style. Everyone possesses style—be it bland, dull, invigorating, precise—but however we handle or mishandle words becomes our style. Style reflects how we think and how we look at life. Style varies with different speakers, and an individual speaker will alter his or her style for different audiences and different occasions. Addressing a high school class, for instance, may demand a different style from what you use in addressing a Sunday morning congregation. The polished wording used in a baccalaureate sermon would sound completely out of place in a small group Bible study.

While rules governing good writing also apply to the sermon manuscript, a sermon is not an essay on its hind legs because what you write serves only as a broad preparation for what you will actually say. Your manuscript is not your final product. Your sermon should not be read to a congregation. Reading usually kills a lively sense of communication. Neither should you try to memorize your manuscript. Not only does memorization place a hefty burden on you if you speak several times a week, but an audience senses when you are reading words off the wall of your mind. Agonize with thought and words at your desk, and what you write will be internalized. Rehearse several times aloud without your manuscript. Make no conscious effort to recall your exact wording. Simply try to get your flow of thought clearly in mind. When you step into the pulpit, your written text will have done its work to shape your use of language. Much of your wording will come back to you as you preach, but not all. In the heat of your delivery, your sentence structure will change. New phrases will occur to you, and your speech will sparkle like spontaneous conversation. Your manuscript, therefore, contributes to the thought and wording of your sermon, but it does not determine it.

Writing a sermon differs from writing an essay or a book. Write as though you were talking with someone, and as in conversation, strive for immediate understanding. Authors know that their readers need not grasp an idea instantly. Readers can examine a page at leisure, reflect on what they have read, argue with the ideas, and move along at any rate they find comfortable. Should they stumble across an unfamiliar word, they can get up and consult a dictionary. If they lose a writer's path of thought, they can retrace it. In short, readers control the experience. Listeners, on the other hand, cannot afford the luxury of leisurely reflection. They cannot go back to listen a second time. If they do not take in what is said as it is said, they will miss it completely. Should they take time out to review the speaker's argument, they will miss what the speaker is saying now. Listeners sit at the mercy of the preacher. Speakers, unlike writers, must make themselves understood instantly.

Strong transitions

There are several techniques that can help you think with fierceness and communicate with clarity. Try indenting and labeling your manuscript according to your outline. For example, the material that you would have under a Roman numeral is flush with the margin. The supporting material for that point would be indented. By doing this, you will imprint on your mind the coordination and subordination of the ideas in your sermon. Listeners, of course, do not hear an outline. They hear a sermon. The outline and the manuscript are for your benefit.

In addition, because transitions carry a heavy burden in spoken communication, they take up more space in a sermon manuscript. Listeners hear your sermon only as a series of sentences. Transitions serve as road signs to point out where the sermon has been and where it is going. Transitions, therefore, are longer and more detailed than in writing.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of clear transitions for clear communication. Major transitions will appear between the introduction and the first major point, and then between the major points within the sermon, and between the body of the sermon and the conclusion. Strong transitions will usually review the major points already covered and show the listener how the points relate to the major idea and to each other, and then they introduce the next point. As a result, major transitions can take up to a paragraph or more in the sermon manuscript.

Minor transitions that link sub-points together may be shorter: sometimes a single word (therefore, besides, yet, consequently), at other places a phrase (in addition to that, what is more, as a result of this), and even more often a sentence or two. Although a writer may imply transitions, a speaker must develop them. It is important to state your point, restate it "in other words," even restate it again, and then repeat it. Clear, full, definite transitions look clumsy on paper, but they run easily in a sermon, and they enable your congregation to think your thoughts with you. A major reason that sermons fail to be clear is that the transitions have not been well crafted.

A clear style

What characteristics of style should you try to cultivate? First of all, you must be clear. Talleyrand once remarked that language was invented to conceal, not reveal the thoughts of men and women. Educated people sometimes speak as though Talleyrand had been their speech instructor. They attempt to impress their audience with the profundity of their thought through the obscurity of their language. A sermon is not deep because it is muddy. Whatever has been thought through can be stated simply and clearly. Poincar, the brilliant French mathematician, insisted, "No man knows anything about higher mathematics until he can explain it clearly to the man on the street." Similarly, we do not understand a passage from the Bible or a point of theology unless we can express it clearly to the men and women sitting before us.

Make no mistake about it. For preachers, clarity is a moral matter. It is not merely a question of rhetoric, but a matter of life and death. Imagine a physician who prescribes a drug but fails to give clear instruction as to how and when the drug is to be used. The physician puts the patient's life at risk. It is a moral matter for a doctor to be clear. So, too, when we proclaim God's truth, we must be clear. If we believe that what we preach either draws people to God or keeps them away from him, then for God's sake and the people's sake, we must be clear. Helmut Thielicke reminds us that the offense of preaching doesn't come when people do not understand us, but because they understand all too well, or at least they are afraid they will have to understand it.

Imagine a mass meeting in China with a Communist launching a tirade against Christianity. Someone jumps to his feet and shouts, "Jesus is the Messiah!"The audience would be startled, and the Christian would be ejected for disturbing the meeting. But suppose he cried out, "Jesus Christ is God! He is the only Lord, and all who make the system into a god will go to hell, along with their Communist leaders." The objector would risk being torn to pieces by the authorities. Clarity reveals the offense of the gospel. It also provides life and hope.

A clear outline
How then can you bring clarity to your sermon? Clear manuscripts develop out of clear outlines. Communication originates in the mind—not in the fingers, not in the mouth, but in the head. Some preachers have jerky minds. While they have stimulating insights, their thought follows no natural sequence, and their zigzag thinking runs listeners to death. After a bewildering half hour trying to keep up with a jerky speaker, hearers will feel that listening to a dull friend comes as a soothing relief, like taking a cat in your lap after trying to hold on to a squirrel. Zigzag thinking can be straightened out only by outlining your overall thought before working on the details. Laboring over an individual paragraph or sentence is pointless unless you know the broad sweep of thought in your sermon. Clear manuscripts and clear sermons develop from clear outlines.

Short sentences
Furthermore, to be clear, keep your sentences short. Rudolph Flesch, in The Art of Plain Talk, maintains that clarity increases as sentence-length decreases. According to his formula, a clear writer will average about seventeen or eighteen words to a sentence, and will not allow any sentence to wander on over thirty words. In your sermon manuscript, short sentences keep your thought from tangling and therefore are easier for you to remember. When you deliver your sermon, you will not concern yourself at all with sentence length, just as you do not think about commas, periods, or exclamation points. As you preach, your words tumble out in long, short, or even broken sentences, punctuated by pauses, vocal slides, and variations in pitch, rate, and force. Short sentences in your manuscript serve your mind; they have little to do with your delivery.

Simple sentence structure
Keep sentence structures simple. A clearer, more energetic style emerges when you follow the thinking sequence: main subject, main verb, and (where needed) main object. In the jargon of grammarians, concentrate on the independent clause before adding dependent clauses (an independent clause can stand alone as a complete sentence; a dependent clause cannot). If you start into a sentence without pinning down what you want to emphasize, you may end up stressing insignificant details. If you add too many dependent clauses, you complicate your sentences, and that makes them harder to understand and remember. Generally, style will be clearer if you package one thought in one sentence. For two thoughts, use two sentences. Arthur Schopenhauer scolded the Germans, "if it is an impertinent thing to interrupt another person when he is speaking, it is no less impertinent to interrupt yourself." Complicated sentences have an additional disadvantage: they slow the pace of the sermon. As Henry Ward Beecher put it, "A switch with leaves on it doesn't tingle."

Simple words
Simple words also contribute to a clear style. Ernest Campbell tells of a wag who, in a moment of frustration, declared, "Every profession is a conspiracy against the layman." Any citizen who has battled with an income tax return wonders why the Internal Revenue Service cannot say what it means. Lawyers assure themselves of a place by embalming the law in legalese. Scientists keep the little person at bay by resorting to symbols and language that only the initiates understand.

Theologians and ministers, too, seem to keep themselves in office by resorting to language that bewilders ordinary mortals. Beware of jargon! Specialized vocabulary helps professionals within a discipline to communicate. But it becomes jargon when it is used unnecessarily or with people who do not understand it. While it takes three years or more to get through seminary, it can take you ten years to get over it. If you pepper your sermons with words like eschatology, angst, pneumatology, exegesis, existential, Johannine, the Christ-event, you throw up barriers to communication. Jargon combines the pretentiousness of big words with the deadness of a clich, and it is often used to impress rather than to inform an audience.

Use a short word unless you find it absolutely necessary to use a longer word. Josh Billings struck a blow for simplicity and clarity when he said, "Young man, when you search Webster's dictionary to find words big enough to convey your meaning, you can make up your mind you don't mean much."

Long words have paralysis in their tails. Legend has it that several decades ago a young copywriter came up with an ad for a new kind of soap: "The alkaline element and fats in this product are blended in such a way as to secure the highest quality of saponification, along with the specific gravity that keeps it on top of the water, relieving the bather of the trouble and annoyance of fishing around for it at the bottom of the tub during his ablution." A more experienced ad-man captured the idea in two simple words: "It floats."

George G. Williams estimates that from 70 to 78 percent of the words used by W. Somerset Maugham, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and Charles Dickens have only one syllable. Seventy-three percent of the words in Psalm 23, seventy-six percent of the words in the Lord's Prayer, and eighty percent of the words in 1 Corinthians 13 are one-syllable words. All the big things in life have little names, such as life, death, peace, war, dawn, day, night, hope, love, and home. Learn to use small words in a big way.

No matter how accurately a phrase or word expresses a speaker's meaning, it is worthless if the listeners do not know what it means. "Speak,"said Abraham Lincoln, "so that the most lowly can understand you and the rest will have no difficulty." Billy Sunday, the noted evangelist, understood the value of simplicity when he said, "if a man were to take a piece of meat and smell it and look disgusted, and his little boy were to say, 'What's the matter with it, Pop?' and he were to say, 'It is undergoing a process of decomposition in the formation of new chemical compounds,' the boy would be all in. But if the father were to say, 'It's rotten,' then the boy would understand and hold his nose. 'Rotten' is a good Anglo-Saxon word, and you do not have to go to a dictionary to find out what it means."

This does not mean that you should talk down to a congregation. Instead, your rule of thumb should be: Don't overestimate your audience's religious vocabulary, or underestimate their intelligence.

A direct and personal style

In addition to being clear, a second major characteristic of spoken style is that it must be direct and personal. While an essay is addressed "to whom it may concern,"a sermon is delivered to the men and women of the First Presbyterian Church near Ninth and Elm Streets on June 15 at 10:30 in the morning. The writer and the reader sit alone, distant from each other and unknown. Preachers speak to their hearers face to face and call them by name. Written language communicates the results of thinking, while spoken language represents a spontaneity of thought that Donald Bryant and Karl Wallace describe as "the-vivid-realization-of-idea-at-the-moment-of-utterance." Therefore a sermon should not sound like a thesis read to a congregation. It sounds like lively conversation where the speaker is thinking in the act of speaking. The feeling of good preaching is that you are talking to and with your hearers. You are thinking about ideas the instant that you utter them. Both speaker and listener sense they are in touch with each other.

Sermons use direct address. While a writer may say, "In their conversations, Christians must be careful of how they speak about others,"a preacher will more likely say, "You must be careful of how you talk about others." The personal pronoun you gives both minister and audience a sense of oneness. While you can be effective, at other times you will say we because you mean you and I. Though the we of direct address stands in contrast to the editorial we that substitutes for the pronoun I, an editorial we sounds as though the preacher were speaking for a committee. The we of oral style, like the we in good conversation, means you and I together.

Speakers will use questions where writers may not. A question invites the listener to think about what the preacher will say next, and often is used in a transition to introduce a major point or a new idea. Questions are sometimes employed in the conclusion of a sermon. Questions show clearly that the audience and speaker are face-to-face. Good questions provoke thought and help listeners anticipate what will come next.

Personal style pays little attention to the conventions of formal writing. Public speakers use contractions (such as can't, we'll, wouldn't) and often split infinitives (such as to deeply disapprove). Any speech appropriate in lively conversation fits preaching. This doesn't mean, of course, that anything goes. Poor grammar, gutter language, or faulty pronunciations may unsettle listeners, and like a giggle in a prayer meeting, all of these raise doubts about a preacher's competence.

What about the use of slang? It gets mixed reviews. When it is used deliberately, slang can capture attention and inject a sense of casualness and informality into the sermon. When it is used thoughtlessly, slang sounds trite and even cheap, and it betrays a lazy mind. Personal, direct speech does not call for careless use of language or inappropriate or undignified English. The language of effective preaching should be the language of stimulating conversation between thoughtful people.

A vivid style

Vividness is a third characteristic of effective style. Wayne Minnick argues that communication that taps into a listener's experience appeals to both mind and feelings. We learn about the world around us through hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch. To get your listeners to experience your message, therefore, you must appeal to their senses. You do this directly through both sight and sound. Your congregation sees your gestures and facial expressions and hears what you say. You also stimulate the senses indirectly through your use of words. Language helps listeners recall impressions of past experiences and, to some degree, they respond to the words as they did to the events. For example, gastric juices may flow when we hear the words hot buttered bread, and then stop in a shudder if we think of roaches crawling on it. Your words cause people to connect with new experiences out of feelings about past experiences.

Your vividness increases when you use specific, concrete details and plenty of them. We label a phrase specific when it is explicit and exact, and concrete if it paints a picture on the mind. The figure $1,923,212.92 is specific down to the penny, but it is not concrete. The figure $275 on your monthly electric bill is concrete. While you can't visualize the first figure, you can the second.

Specific details add interest if they are concrete. They communicate because they relate to the experiences of the audience. Therefore, instead of produce, say cabbages, cucumbers, carrots, and oranges. Rather than weapon, talk about a heavy lead pipe. Instead of major cities, be specific: New York, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco. The following statement is abstract: "In the course of human experience, we observe that the events of our existence have definite cyclical characteristics. Awareness of this will direct observers to a high degree of appropriateness in their actions." The preacher in Ecclesiastes expressed that same thought this way: 'For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak" (Ecclesiastes 3:1-7 ASV).

Like an artist or a novelist, you must learn to think in pictures. That means you must visualize details. Gustave Flaubert gave his writing disciple, Guy de Maupassant, an assignment: "Go down to the [railroad station] and you will find there about fifty cabs. They all look pretty much alike, but they are not alike. You pick out one and describe it so accurately that when it goes past, I cannot possibly mistake it."

Your speech will become more vivid if you let nouns and verbs carry your meaning. Adjectives and adverbs clutter speech, and they keep company with weak nouns and verbs. According to E. B. White, "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place." Strong nouns and verbs stand alone. A tall man, should become a giant;a large bird should become a pelican or an eagle or a vulture. Say he bellowed, not he talked very loudly, or he trotted rather than he went quickly. Be especially careful of qualifiers like very, so, quite, rather, too. They betray our failure to choose words of substance.

Scalding has a strength that very hot does not; excruciating hurts more than too painful; and scintillating paints a better picture than so interesting. When choosing your verbs, use live ones. Finite, active verbs make a sentence go. The principle to follow is "somebody does something." Too many passive verbs suck the life out of speech: opinions and judgments are formed by us on the basis of what we have known sounds dead. We think as we have known possesses vitality. A good time was had by all lies there while everyone had a good time moves.

Verbs, like nouns, wake up the imagination when they are precise. She went gets her there, but not as clearly as crawled, stumbled, shuffled, lurched. He shouts, shrieks, rants, whispers tell us what says does not say.

Your vividness also increases when you employ fresh figures of speech. Metaphors and similes produce sensations in listeners and cause them to recall images of past experiences. Alexander Maclaren stimulates the sense of touch when he says, "All sin is linked together in a slimy tangle like a field of seaweed so that a man, once caught in its oozy fingers, is almost sure to drown." Lord Byron appeals to sight when he tells us: "The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold, and his cohorts all gleaming in silver and gold."

Charles H. Spurgeon captured the senses in a simile that refers to a past era: "The great universe lay in the mind of God like unborn forests in the acorn's cup." Alfred North Whitehead touched on sight and smell when he reflected, "Knowledge doesn't keep any better than fish." Figures of speech conserve time by packing more into a phrase than word-wasting speakers express in a paragraph. Consider a few:

Fig-leaf phrases that cover naked ignorance
Words that have been hollowed out on the inside and filled with whipped cream
Clichs that stand like tombstones over dead ideas
If Protestantism is found dead, the sermon will be the dagger in her heart.
He avoided the sticky issues as though he were stepping around puddles of hot tar.

Metaphors and similes, like lobsters, must be served fresh. Both the literal and figurative meanings should strike the mind of the listener at the same instant. When the literal image fades because the comparison has been overworked, the figure loses its force. Hearers become tone-deaf to them. The following that once may have hit like a one-two punch now hardly reach the chin:

Outreach of the church
Tried and true
Lost and dying world
Born-again Christians
Throw the baby out with the bathwater
Souls for your hire
A prayer-hearing and prayer-answering God
Straddle the fence

When a comparison has turned stale, toss it out and come up with a fresh one that clarifies your point and keeps your audience alert. Relevance shows up in style as well as content. While we speak the eternal message, it must be in today's words. Study magazine ads or radio or television commercials for easily understood language that speaks to the inhabitants of our culture. Common observation tells us what linguistic tests have proved—much of the language used in our pulpits is "imprecise, irrelevant, and insignificant."

Effective style cannot be taught like a mathematical formula. Mastery of "the well-dressed word"requires an eye for particulars and a search for significant resemblances between things not ordinarily associated with one another. In short, doing away with hackneyed and tired speech demands your imagination. In expository preaching, nothing has been more needed—or more lacking. Expositors who represent the creative God dare not become, in Robert Browning's description, "clods untouched by a spark."

How can you shun the sin of boring people?

  1. Pay attention to your own use of language. In private conversation, don't shift your mind into neutral, using phrases that idle rather than move. Cultivate fresh comparisons in ordinary conversation and you will find them easier to use when you preach. Beecher gave this testimony about illustrations, which also applies to style: "while illustrations are as natural to me as breathing, I use fifty now to one in the early years of my ministry. I developed a tendency that was latent in me, and educated myself in that respect; and that, too, by study and practice, by hard thought, and by a great many trials, both with the pen, and extemporaneously by myself, when I was walking here and there."
  2. Study how others use language. When writers or speakers shake you awake, examine how they did it. Because poetry bursts with similes and metaphors, studying verse develops a feel for figurative language. Reader's Digest has a regular feature called "More Picturesque Speech" that offers similes and metaphors that are alive and compelling.
  3. Read aloud. Reading aloud does two things for you. First, your vocabulary will increase. As youngsters, we learned to speak by listening and imitating long before we could read or write. Reading aloud recreates that experience. Second, as you read aloud a style better than your own, new patterns of speech and creative wording will be etched on your mind. You will develop a feel for picture-making language. Read to your spouse and children so that you'll be forced to interpret what you read. Read novels, plays, sermons, and especially the Bible. The King James Version presents God's truth in Shakespearean grandeur, and the New International Version puts it into more up-to-date dress. Both have impressive style.


Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Related articles

Delivery: Introduction

How do I speak in a way that arrests hearers?

Delivery: Part 1: Workshops

How do I speak in a way that arrests hearers?

Delivery: Part 2: Examples of Excellent Sermon Delivery

How do I speak in a way that arrests hearers?