This brief article by Lisa Evans from Fast Company covered a few mistakes people make in public speaking. There’s a section in there that just about perfectly captures my own concerns when preachers attempt to memorise their message, or worse still, read it out. The article is summarising some of the tips from Laura Sicola, founder of Vocal Impact Productions, and the first problem she identifies is the tendency to sound disengaged from your message. Quoting Sicola, Lisa Evans writes:
“ ‘If you don’t sound like you’re interested in your own words, why would anyone else be interested?’ asks Sicola. Too often, she says, managers will jot down meeting notes and read them off, or attempt to memorize them. The problem is, she explains, trying to get through a list of words often distracts the presenter from their meaning and causes them to sound disengaged.
“ ‘It’s not that you have to be Tony Robbins jumping up and down and trying to convince and compel, but you have to sound like you’re at least listening to the words that are coming out of your mouth,’ says Sicola.”
I think a lot of preachers are aware of this danger and so they attempt to make up for it by injecting some passion and variation in their tone of voice. The problem is, very few guys manage to sound authentic when they’re accessing their memory bank or reading their manuscript (though there are some notable exceptions, including John Piper and Mark Dever who preach from very full manuscripts).
It seems to me that the reason guys feel they have to write a full sermon and regurgitate or read it comes down to the fear of what might go wrong otherwise – they might preach too long (a real problem when you use less notes); they might speak heresy (yes, I’ve heard that one before); they might get their words mixed up; they might forget what to say; they might repeat themselves too often. But all of these potential problems can be overcome through determined practice.
Mark Driscoll says that learning to preach is like learning to drive a clutch; you have to keep trying until you get it right. I think it’s worth working hard to overcome the fear of speaking with fewer notes because the experience and effectiveness is so much greater in the long run. It’s probably going to result in some embarrassment along the way, but that’s ok. (And that’s one more reason why churches should probably think twice about putting every sermon online – there’s just no room for mistakes.)