Editior's Note: Patricia Fripp is an executive speech coach and award-winning professional speaker and former president of the National Speakers Association.
Derek Morris: As an award-winning professional speaker and executive speech coach, you have learned many practical pointers in the marketplace that can help preachers connect more effectively with their audiences and congregations. Let's start by considering the opening sentences of the sermon. You encourage your clients to "start with a bang" and "come out punching." Why is a strong introduction so important?
Patricia Fripp: Today's audiences have very short attention spans. The first and last thirty seconds have the most impact. Don't waste those precious seconds with trivialities. Come out punching.
In my speakers' schools, I teach 32 ways to open a speech. These would also be true for a sermon. You might start with a story, an interesting statistic, a startling statement—any thing rather than something predictable. Being too predictable can be boring.
With the advent of the TV remote control, no one watches anything that stands still long enough to bore. Today's audiences will forgive you for anything except being boring.
We must keep our audience's needs in mind. In the first sentence or so, you want people in your audience to elbow their neighbors and say, "This is going to be good. I'm glad we're here!" When a sermon is immediately compelling, it's as if you forget everything else. It's important to memorize the first three or four sentences of your introduction. This allows you to start fluently, connecting with your audience.
DM: A common question that clients ask you is how to relax before a talk. What are some practical ways that a preacher can relax before the sermon and start "warmed up" rather than taking precious moments at the beginning of the sermon to get up to speed?
PF: It's totally natural to be nervous, but there are some physical exercises that can help you channel your nervousness into energy before you speak. Comedian Robin Williams does jumping jacks! I would suggest that you at least physically shake the tension out of your body. Find someplace private and wave your hands in the air. Shake your hands to shake out the tension. This will help your hand movements to be much more relaxed and appropriate.
Shake your feet. Stand on one leg and shake the other. When you put your foot back on the ground, it's going to feel lighter than the other one. Now, switch legs and shake the other foot. Relax your jaw and shake your head from side to side. I shake my face so my lips and face are relaxed. Warm up your face muscles by chewing in a highly exaggerated way.
Facial relaxation is particularly important if you're speaking at a place where image magnification is being used. These simple exercises will help a preacher to channel nervousness into energy.
A wonderful preparation technique for small meetings is to go around shaking hands and making eye contact with everybody beforehand. For larger meetings, shake hands with people in the front row and some of the people as they are coming in the door. Connect with people personally prior to your sermon. Once you've met the audience, or at least some of them, they become less scary.
DM: You emphasize the importance of connecting emotionally and as well as intellectually with your audience. What are some of the ways in which a speaker can do that?
PF: In three ways. This first is eye contact I would suggest that a preacher begin the sermon by focusing on one person for the opening sentence. During the sermon, make sure your eye contact is at least three seconds per person, and often longer, depend ing on the size of your congregation.
If you are speaking to a large congregation, then look in certain directions for 3-5 seconds, and people will think that you are looking at them. When you have extended eye contact with one part of the congregation and then look to another part of the congregation, people will follow you. If you have notes, complete your thought, then look down at the next note. Allow that pause to be a time for reflection for the congregation.
A second way to emotionally connect with your audience is by telling stories. As screenwriter Robert McKee says, "Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience." Stories need to be populated with flesh-and-blood characters that the congregation can relate to. And stories need to be told well. An audience will always prefer a trivial story well told, to a brilliant story badly told. Relate your stories to the needs and interests of your congregation.
A third way to emotionally connect is what I call the I-You ratio. Involve your congregation in your sermon. Instead of saying, "When I was growing up, my father gave me this advice," you might say, "I don't know what advice your father gave you when you were growing up, but mine always said ..." In that way, you have involved your audience. When they walk away, they have the advice your father gave you and the advice their father gave them. You might say, "Imagine how Jesus felt when ..." or "Let's go back together to the fateful night when ..." You're taking your congregation along with you.
DM: Let's go back for a moment to the matter of telling stories. You challenge speakers to develop their storytelling abilities. What are the ingredients of a good story, and how should a person relate that story for maximum impact?
PF: The ingredients of a good story are interesting characters, sparkling dialogue, and a dramatic lesson learned. The dramatic lesson learned is the point of the story. The funniestor most exhilarating story will be pointless if you don't tie it into your theme and provide a lesson learned.
Let's imagine that a preacher is going to tell a biblical story. The Bible is full of sparkling dialogue. It doesn't say, "Jesus went out and had a conversation with the crowd." No! It says, "Jesus went out and said ..." That's a perfect example of sparkling dialogue. Let's just imagine you are telling the story of Jesus turning the loaves and fishes into a feast.
- List all the characters who are part of the story.
- Determine the point of the story.
- Tell the story as sparkling dialogue.
- Give your characters flesh-and blood personalities that your audience can relate to.
- Make your stories come alive.
Good stories should be edited down to the nub and then acted out for greatest impact.
Learn to affect the role of that character on stage by shifting your position, changing your head movement or facial expression. In this way the audience can see the story and appreciate it more.
DM: I notice that you use humor in your presentations. What are some guidelines for using humor?
PF: Humor can add a lot to your sermon, but it must fit you and your topic. Use humor with caution.
Before you use humor, ask yourself these questions:
- Is it appropriate to the occasion and for the audience?
- Is it in good taste?
- Does it support your topic or its key points?
Avoid telling generic "funny stories." Rather, find and build humor within the context of your own stories. Jokes may get a laugh, but a humorous personal story pertinent to your talk will add freshness and will be memorable to your audience.
DM: Many preachers receive little or no training in the area of nonverbal communication. What practical pointers can you share that would help preachers to communicate effectively through body language?
PF: Body language is an essential part of your message and can help you enhance the words you use to create pictures in the minds of your audience. Move on purpose. Let your movement be phrase specific. If you are saying, "Moses came down from the mountaintop," or "Jesus returned from 40 days in the desert," those would be appropriate times to move.
Avoid repetitive use of the same movements or gestures. Practice a variety of movements. Try practicing a sermon by clasping your hands behind your back to avoid meaning less, repetitive arm and hand gestures. It will be tough at first to concentrate on your sermon without using your hands, but it will help stop superficial flailing and gesturing.
You can use movement for emphasis. To emphasize a shift in your sermon content, move to the left or right of the lectern. If you have a strong point to make, use that moment to take a step or two forward to emphasize that issue. When you are making that key point, stand still and deliver. After making a point or delivering a punch line, accentuate it by standing still and shifting only your eyes. The impact will be much greater.
Movement rehearsal is essential to ensure your gestures are relevant and not superficial or redundant. It is important not to overdo the same gestures or to stand inert before your audience. Movement keeps your presence fresh.
DM: What lessons have you learned as a professional speaker that have been most helpful for you?
PF: One of the most exciting elements of presentations I have learned is the art of not using my voice.
Pausing at exactly the right moment in your sermon is often more effective than anything you could do with your voice or body movements. Learn to pause more often. Knowing your material very well may cause you to talk too fast. Your audience may be hearing your information for the first time, so it is important to slow down and give them the opportunity to catch every word. Using pauses and silences to punctuate your material will draw in your audience.
I've also learned the importance of packaging and polishing.
When working on a new talk, develop the habit of reciting it to yourself repeatedly. You can do this while driving the car, walking through the park, waiting in an air port. After every statement or segment of material, ask yourself "Who cares?" If no one really does, don't say it.
Ask yourself, "Does this material dilute the message or enhance it?" "Does this material make the sermon more interesting, or does it make the sermon so long that the audience loses the point?" This is a great way to see if you are saying anything of value. Use short, simple declarative sentences and cut out useless words. Sound bites can be more effective than lengthy dissertations. Do this until the words form a harmonious pattern with which you are comfort able. Then dictate it on a tape recorder and have it transcribed on paper.
Now undertake the tightening, fine-tuning, polishing process. Check for grammatical errors, delete unnecessary words, highlight the punch words, and find the emotion you want behind the words.
Then run it by close friends or associates for their feedback. Keep an open mind to constructive criticism, continue to make refinements, add pauses or gestures to draw in the audience, and insert ideas from others that enhance the integrity of the material. Once you've completed this process, proceed to final rehearsals until it is second nature to you and you can relax with it in front of your audience.
Remember that words are not enough. People always work on the words, but they seldom work on how they say them. Always look for ways to add pace, spice, energy, and polish. Try it! You will be amazed at how dynamic a sermon can become by doing your homework dutifully and taking the time to craft it into a polished piece of work.