When I was in my training year to be a pastor, I had coaching to improve my speaking and singing skills. We exercised parts of the liturgy (sung or spoken) and we also helped each other to improve our public speaking and preaching in particular.
While reading “Confessions of a public speaker” by Scott Berkun, it was interesting to spot the overlap – but also the things that where only taught either in preachers seminary or in the book.
Some hints by the professional speaker and communication coach Scott Berkun could be easily transferred into my present working context.
For preparation he suggests for example to:
- Take a strong position in the title of the talk
- Think carefully about the specific audience
- Make your specific points as concise as possible
- Know the likely counterargument from an intelligent, expert audience
All this tips can be fruitful while preparing general talks, but also sermons. To sharpen the topic, to be sensitive to the anticipated audience, to phrase clear and concise points and to enfold the topic embracing different points of view are also goals in my sermon preparation.
At one point in the book, Berkun talks about the level of attention for listeners. He states that 10 minutes is the best amount of time people can pay attention. Usually I am preaching for about 10 minutes. So in this case it fits. (And wasn’t it Luther who stated in rough translation: In a sermon, you can talk over everything, but never over 40 minutes.)
But talking in my confirmation classes for over 10 minutes continuous, I also experienced, that I have to switch didactics and methods after such a long period of head-on talking and teaching from the front.
Use of the rhetoric toolkit
Berkun also mentions ancient methods of rhetoric. Those tactics and abilities of persuasion he uses to describe a field-tested toolkit for making a point (λόγος, ἔθος , πάθος). Accenting and emphasizing are also stylistic devices in this tool-kit. Some of his points are already a reflex in daily conversations or internalized in past coaching’s, other points are helpful to keep in mind and concentrate on. Especially Berkuns thoughts on filler sounds and moments of silence where eye opening. Silence sometimes emphasizes more than a lot of words.
Treasure of homiletics
On the other hand there are also skills I learned in a specific coaching context for my ministry as a pastor, that I don’t want to miss. Apart from the whole spiritual dimension in a preaching context, also the main reflection on key aspects in homiletics taught me a lot for my daily talking, speaking and preaching.
Modern homiletics also use interdisciplinary insights to improve contemporary preaching. The well-known german homilists Martin Nicol and Alexander Deeg developed a new model in the preaching school of the “New Homiletics” called “dramaturgic homiletics”. To them preaching can be compared with producing a movie or staging a theatre play. Hermeneutics are seen as an interplay between the preacher and the audience/surrounding culture. Moves and structure are used methods to refresh and empower the present preaching culture.
This special model by Nicol and Deeg is really successful in Germany right now. I guess one of the reasons is the interdisciplinary approach. In pastoral ministry and homiletics we can also learn a lot from a multidimensional approach. Old models that cherish the island position of homiletics are not timely anymore. There are a lot of fruitful skills and experiences theologians and especially preachers can learn from other disciplines.
Feedback culture and improving
One of the most helpful approaches in the book was chapter eight on “Things people say”. It meets the upcoming but still very underrepresented culture of feedback for preachers. “Thank you so much,” “It was awesome” and “Your words touched me” are common confirmations after sermons, but I can hardly learn from them. I was fascinated how Berkun appreciates feedback and critical remarks and directly asks for them.
Even at the end of the book, in the paragraph “how to help this book” he requests to review his own book. Not only to promote it on Amazon or a personal blog, but also to improve his thoughts. Pastors can learn a lot from that attitude.
- Do I, as a preacher, have an open attitude to embrace feedback?
- Am I willing to improve through the advices and reactions of my parishioners during and after the sermon?