What can the preacher learn from the stand-up comic and other expert communicators?
Not a lot, it might be supposed. The preacher shouldn’t go all-out for laughs: his message is far too serious. He shouldn’t preach time again the same message, honing it until every word is in the right place, and the delivery timed to perfection. He shouldn’t try to create any kind of unnatural persona, but rather be in the pulpit the same person that he is at home, at work, and amongst his friends.
And yet there are lessons that the preacher can and should learn from the experts about effective communication.
- Tell stories. ‘Preachers have know for centuries that people remember stories, but still naturally turn to precepts. This is odd when we remember that we follow a master who spent much of his time speaking in parables.’
- Create human interest. Charities do this when they ask for money. They don’t say, ‘Your donations will help a lot of people.’ They say, ‘Listen to the story of Martha. Your donation will help people like her.’ We do this in evangelistic settings, when we ask people to tell their stories (aka ‘give their testimony’).
- Be specific. There is an old journalistic saying: ‘Get the name of the dog’. You get the point: don’t generalise when you can be specific. Don’t be abstract when you can be concrete.
- Draw pictures. When TV is telling us about education, we are shown a picture of children in the classroom. When its talking about France, there is a shot of the Eiffel Tower. When an scientist is being interviewed, she’s in her lab, wearing a white coat. When it’s an academic, the backdrop is of shelves of books. Be a TV camera, and work with freeze-frames, changes of angle, close-ups and long shots.
- Cut! The comic’s material is cut back to the bare bones. In order to keep her audience’s attention, every word has to count. The must be no redundancy. Otherwise, she will lose them, and may never win them back. Ruthlessly cut back on everything that is trite, meaningless, banal, obvious, boring, or needlessly repetitive.
- Get in, go on, and get out. You must hook your audience within the first few sentences. Create your own epigrams. Don’t forget the power of the out-line – the last phrase that will be remembered long after everything has been forgotten.
- Rehearse. Comics practice over and over again so that finally they appear to be completely spontaneous (giggles, nudges, and winks included). You can’t imagine a comedian reading from a script; and a sermon is an exercise in speaking, not in reading. Now, I am very far from recommending that the preacher should memorise his sermon. But some bits (the beginning, maybe, and also the end) might well benefit from being word-perfect, and even in the rest he should at least have thought about how the ideas could be put into words.
- Engage. Public speakers expect, and work for, a response from their hearers. Comics feed on laughter. A skilled stand-up comic sets up a kind of dialogue with his audience. Even though all they give back is laughter, they are brought into the conversation at every point. All sorts of ingredients are thrown into the pot: ‘gestures, looks, insults, rhetorical questions, strange accents, pregnant pauses, funny walks’.
If the preacher lacks a worthwhile message, or lacks personal integrity, then of course all of this will be merely manipulative. But the preacher has to fight for people’s attention. And these can be some effective weapons in that fight.
Based on (with some new material and a change of emphasis, esp. in point 7) A Preaching Workbook, by David Day, pp 70-75.