Can we preach so people want to listen?

What do people in your congregation feel like just as the service reaches the time for the sermon? Do they have a sense of anticipation and expectation? Is it something that they are looking forward to? This is quite a personal question for preachers, and so something of a challenge, since there is much truth to Phillips Brooks’ saying that ‘preaching is the communication of truth through personality’ (even if you might want to ask some questions of that saying). In churches of different traditions, there might be a range of answers to that. But in churches where preaching is highly valued, the answer to this question very often takes the form of answering another question: should I be looking forward to the sermon? I know it will do me good; I am pretty confident that I will learn something; I certainly ought to be looking forward to it. But do I want to listen?

Preachers themselves are often rather hesitant to engage with the converse of this question, in part because of a suspicion of turning preaching into entertainment, but also in part because being good to listen to is actually quite a high-level skill and difficult to attain. There are some people in our culture who are able to hold the attention of an audience for long periods of time, and charge money for doing so. But there are relatively few of them, and they charge quite a lot, so that tells us that it is not something that everyone can do.

Last year we bought a new TV, and for the first time we could access the internet directly through it. As a result, instead of browsing the TV schedule in an idle moment, like many other people I have chosen to watch things online, and as a result have watched quite a few TED talks. (If you haven’t come across them, they are a way of spreading ‘inspirational’ ideas about technology and development by experts to wider audiences. They cover a wide range of subjects, including, ironically, why TED talks are no good at spreading inspirational ideas.) I was fascinated recently to hear Julian Treasure, who works as a ‘sound consultant’ to businesses, on how to speak so that people want to listen.

His talk was essentially in two parts, the first exploring questions of content, and the second exploring issues of delivery. There is no indication in any of his online information that Treasure is a Christian or has any Christian affiliation, but what he says chimes with what any Christians will have reflected on not only in reference to preaching but concerning speech in general. Treasure first identifies what he calls the ‘seven deadly sins’ of speaking that we should avoid (so telling the bad news before explaining the good news!): gossip; judging; being negative; complaining; offering excuses; exaggeration; and dogmatism. There are some important things to chew on here in relation to preaching—not least the issue of exaggeration in those preaching traditions which value story-telling, and in which the listener can sometimes wonder how so many amazing things can really have happened to the preacher.

What is also interesting to note is the way that Treasure makes use of interesting language, personal anecdotes, and rhetorical techniques, along with a compressed way of saying a lot in a few words.

First, gossip. Speaking ill of somebody who’s not present. Not a nice habit, and we know perfectly well the person gossiping, five minutes later, will be gossiping about us.

Complaining is the national art of the U.K. It’s our national sport.

Some people have a blamethrower. They just pass it on to everybody elseand don’t take responsibility for their actions.

I particularly liked the image of a ‘blamethrower’—and Treasure deploys these figures of speech quite naturally, without drawing too much attention to them. In reading the transcript, you can also see how he is speaking naturally, and not always in complete sentences—another good lesson for preachers working from scripts.

To complete this first half, he then offers a four-fold antidote to these seven deadly sins, which conveniently spell the word H-A-I-L, making good use of mnemonics.

The H, honesty, of course, being true in what you say, being straight and clear. The A is authenticity, just being yourself. A friend of mine described it as standing in your own truth, which I think is a lovely way to put it. The I is integrity, being your word, actually doing what you say, and being somebody people can trust. And the L is love. I don’t mean romantic love, but I do mean wishing people well, for two reasons. First of all, I think absolute honesty may not be what we want. I mean, my goodness, you look ugly this morning. Perhaps that’s not necessary. Tempered with love, of course, honesty is a great thing. But also, if you’re really wishing somebody well, it’s very hard to judge them at the same time. I’m not even sure you can do those two things simultaneously. So HAIL.

These kinds of principles would look out of place in a book on preaching, and they connect well with NT examples. When people exclaim that Jesus offers ‘a new teaching, and with authority!’ (Mark 1.22), they were not commenting on the content or delivery of what Jesus said, but the fact that what he said and what he did lined up. His preaching had an authenticity and integrity that others lacked.

That was all interesting enough—but what I found even more fascinating was the second half of his talk. Here, Treasure moves from the content of what is said to the process of good delivery—and, if you want to avoid preaching badly, then you need to attend to these kinds of things, which are too often passed over.

I think I would rather stay with the metaphor of your voice as an instrument. If you are a preacher, and you play your sermon on the instrument of your voice, do you ever spend time tuning your instrument, or keeping it in good shape? Treasure highlights four key aspects to this instrument, or five tools in the toolbox, which preachers would do well to consider. This is the point at which you really need to listen to the talk, as he illustrates each of the five in the way he himself speaks.

The first he calls register, which you might also describe as ‘pitch’—whether you speak through your nose in a falsetto, through your throat, or through your chest. ‘We vote for politicians with lower voices, it’s true, because we associate depth with power and with authority. That’s register.’ It is also why, historically, men have been listened to as public speakers more than women. 

The second is timbre—whether you speak in a rich, smooth way or a shrill and tinny way. ‘Again, the research shows that we prefer voices which are rich, smooth, warm, like hot chocolate. Well if that’s not you, that’s not the end of the world, because you can train.’ My spiritual hero when I was a teenager, David Watson, was well aware of the importance of the timbre of his voice, and used to employ an opera singer to help train him in projecting his voice and speaking more effectively. 

The third is prosody, the natural variation and ‘sing-song’ which is the opposite of the all-too-common monotone. Preaching is too often monotonous.

The fourth is pace, and he rightly links pace with pitch, which he previously called register.

Finally, he mentions volume—whether we speak loudly or quietly, and he highlights the power of speaking softly to gain our listener’s attention.

Of course, where this all comes into play most of all is when you’ve got something really important to do. It might be standing on a stage like this and giving a talk to people. It might be proposing marriage, asking for a raise, a wedding speech. Whatever it is, if it’s really important, you owe it to yourself to look at this toolbox and the engine that it’s going to work on.

Treasure only has 15 minutes to say all this, and of course there is more to be said. In particular, I would want to link the dynamics of delivery to the content and context in two ways. The first relates to the genre of what we are saying at any one time. When we are explaining things, or looking at a biblical text and making observations, then one kind of pace and prosody is appropriate. But when we are moving to illustrations, or story-telling, then a different pace, prosody, register and timbre are appropriate, and in fact come naturally. And the change from one style to another gives shape and interest to what we are saying. And this links to our physical context through choreography. If we are speaking on a platform from a lectern, then standing behind the lectern in more didactic parts of our preaching offers a sense of objectivity and seriousness. But moving away from the lectern to recount a story helps us connect our experience with our listeners—and in fact, in moving to a physically different space, we find the pace and tone of our voice naturally changes.

If you are a preacher, then it is worth listening back to recordings of your own preaching (something I continue to do after more than 30 years of preaching)—and why not observe the ways you make use of the five tools that Treasure describes? What would you need to do to make better use of them?

If you are a listener—then just be kind to your preachers!

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6 thoughts on “Can we preach so people want to listen?”

  1. Some of the best models for good preaching is the set of today’s prophets, aka “comedians”. Going to the comedy club, watching standup on telly, listening to Radio4 comedy and podcasts. Particularly listen to the ones with a message (eg. Simon Evans, John Finnemore, Sindhu Vee, those pushing an identity agenda). How they mix content, get attention, hold attention, revisit content. Some of them are pure genius (I’m a John Finnemore fan).

    The most common way is having a thread of narrative. There may be a string of stories, but there is often an underlying narrative. And they use Greek Rhetorical skills (e.g. rule of 3, repetition, from small to all encompassing, from the all encompassing to the small), in a ways that challenge even government speech writers. (BTW another source of model). The top professional comedians will hone a 40 minute set over months. We have a week or two to prepare sermons.

  2. Great article – one typo “These kinds of principles would look out of place in a book on preaching”. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. The talk is actually less than 10 minutes long, not 15, did it seem long? 😉

    He actually had six ‘tools’, distinguishing pitch and register (see his slide). The latter relates to where you resonate then voice, and therefore its colour as well as pitch. But variation of pitch within a single register is also possible.

    A long time ago someone told me the importance of “pitch, pause and pace” (3 ‘P’s – must have been an evangelical!) Treasure include pause as silence within the pitch. Having the confidence to stop talking can be very important.

  4. This is a very interesting blog and also one that raises a quandary. I’m trying to reconcile the understandable wish to improve our preaching style with Paul’s view: ‘and my preaching was not with persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.’ 1 Cor 2.4-5. I find I have to pay attention to communicating because of the folk I’m preaching to. We get visitors along and you want to get their attention; and no doubt the influence of tv and media has dulled the listening skills of people generally in our congregations now. I’m not sure how this comports with the astounding effects of power preaching in Acts and historical revivals.
    A number of years ago I was mesmerised listening to the Bishop of Warwick at a CofE school licensing service. I mentioned it to the Head who was there in an official capacity and he had been completely unmoved by it. I’m sure the anticipation of people who are hungry to learn and grow makes such a difference to how we preach – drawing life out of you. I’m sure that was one feature of the preaching of Jesus when faced with people who were like sheep without a shepherd; or even Paul preaching all night in Troas.
    The other thing is whether or not there is a difference between ‘preaching’ and ‘teaching’. The latter is generally much less ‘entertaining’ but where there is a hunger in the listeners to see the kingdom come, it can be gripping even thought the style is not necessarily ‘HAIL’.

  5. For those of us who are not preachers at all, this is a great post to encourage us to “say it well” – whatever we have to say – for the glory of God.

  6. I’ve heard two good sermons at two churches today, different in style and probably some difference in theological stances. What they had in common was a belief that the scriptures carried with them an authority that didn’t need to played down or made easy to swallow.

    I sometimes think that preachers seem to think they need to add something to give the scripture an acceptibilty that it doesn’t have on its own. That can be endless tangential illustration ( thus not actually illustrating anything relevant) or a preaching that doesn’t really come out of the heart of the passage but does no more than pick up a useful word or two.

    Personally I’m very happy to use humour (I think my usual listeners would be surprised if I didn’t!) and even absurdity but it’s got to fit, not distract and not be scripture-alternative.

    I find folks are hungry for sermons that stay with the text. Isn’t this why biblical preaching is both vital and effective? God brings life through his word. However we deliver it that confidence is key to the task.

    Style is as varied as the preachers are…and it’s partly about who we are individually before God and others.


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