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How to Increase Clarity in Your Preaching

Several years ago I was listening to a student preach in class. In a few minutes I would be leading some class interaction on the message. But I had absolutely no idea what the speaker was talking about!

I had a copy of the student's outline off to one side, so I glanced at it, looking for some semblance of order so I could lead a profitable discussion.

To my amazement, the student's outline was beautiful — a logical progression, with proper subordinations and overall unity. The student had a first-class brain. Why couldn't I follow him?

That's when I began to discover that clarity in oral communication is different from clarity in written communication. It takes a special set of skills and adjustments to take a message that would be clear to a reader and make it clear for a hearer.

The reason we need to make these adjustments for oral clarity is because we lose many of the built-in aids to clarity that occur when our material is in written form.

The most powerful aid to clarity in written material is the paragraph. When our eye sees white-space at the beginning of a line — a paragraph indentation — our brain unconsciously says, You are about to begin a new thought. Our eyes catch some white-space at the end of the line, further down the page, and our brain says, This new thought you are about to begin will last until you reach that spot further on. And finally, our brain concludes with the voice of our high-school composition teacher, As you begin this new thought, the first sentence you read will be the topic sentence that tells what the whole paragraph is about.

We have not yet read a single word of the paragraph, but all these things have been powerfully and clearly organized in our mind. Nothing in oral communication corresponds to the white-space of the paragraph indentation. (A lengthy pause is not the same — the listener will simply think you forgot!)

There are several other aids to clarity built into written communication. Readers can go at their own speed. They can re-read a page if they didn't get it the first time. They can look up unfamiliar words and return to find the page in the same spot they left it. And they can benefit from visual cues such as italics, bold print, center headings, and punctuation.

Since oral communication has none of these things, a speaker must make an important adjustment for the message to remain clear for a hearer: Whenever you come to a key sentence in your message, restate it. Immediately say the same thing in different words. Right away, find other words to get across the same concept. Before you go any further in the message, use different terms to communicate the same sentence. (Note the restatements in this paragraph, which strike us as superfluous when reading but not so when listening.)

Restatement gives the listener's ear more than one chance to grasp a concept. In oral communication, it is essential to clarity and should be used whenever you come to a key sentence in your message.

Key sentences include:

A key sentence is also one that reveals organizational structure, such as:

Restatement is God's gift to oral communicators. Whenever you have a key sentence of either content or structure, give the listener more than one chance to grasp it aurally. It will add clarity to your preaching.

To see restatement fleshed out in a sermon, click here.

Reprinted from Sundoulos (Fall, 1998)

Donald R. Sunukjian is professor of homiletics and chair of the Christian Ministry and Leadership Department at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California.

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