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How to be more Effective

Here are observations and ideas that I believe will make anyone who follows them a better speaker, teacher, and even student. And since those are three of the primary tasks of preachers, I think they're especially worthwhile, and especially for those who are just starting out.

1) Don't Preach It All Every Sermon

Don't feel like you have to preach everything you know about your chosen topic, every time you preach on it. Choose what you're going to say, and stick to it. Face it, you cannot say everything that every listener needs to hear in one sitting, nor could they absorb it all if you did. Better to say one thing well, and make it stick, then to say everything poorly or forgettably.

2) Don't Talk About Your Outline It has always baffled me why high school speech teachers afflict their poor students with the notion that it's best to tell the hapless audience what the three headings of your "talk" are as you start out. Don't spend much time talking about how you're going to "get into that in more depth later in the lesson." Don't talk about how "we'll come back to that later, don't worry." Especially don't say, "Now for our second point," and such drivel.

Just cover your material. Move smoothly through the presentation that you've planned. Let your outline (if you use one) be your guide, but don't lean on it or be a slave to it. And whatever you do, don't read it. Your job is to present a complete presentation of the results of your study, and to help someone else. It is not to talk about what should be just an invisible skeleton on which you hang the meat of your talk.

3) Finish On Time

Am I allowed to say that? Did I lose anyone there? Are you wondering where my zeal all suddenly went? Don't I know that Paul preached until midnight?

Look, there are exceptions to all good rules (with some exceptions, of course. :)). There are to this one. But as a rule, finish what you're going to say in the time allotted to you. This is not because those old sorry, un-appreciative, un-devoted people out there in the pews don't enjoy hearing the truth as much as you. No, it's because if you frequently "run long", it's most likely that you're breaking other rules, either trying to cram too much stuff in (Rule 1), or wasting time along the way talking about stuff that is irrelevant to your main thrust (Rule 2, e.g.). It's not that you have so many brilliant things to say that you don't have time to say them all. More likely, it's that you're just not saying them as well as you could be, so it takes a long time to get it all out. Having to fit into the time allotted gives you discipline, and frequently is a great help in firming and toning your otherwise flabby words.

As Strunk & White put it, "Vigorous writing is concise." (see Rule 9 for more on this.)

4) Don't Take Every Opportunity to Criticize

Don't always be pounding your audience for not being "spiritual" enough. There will always be something that you could preach against. But the fact is that you have to preach for something, or else people will quickly learn to shut you out. After all, no one (including you) is anywhere close to perfect. But just like we can't live on a steady diet of castor oil and penicillin, we do not grow primarily through criticism. We grow through the whole Word.

This doesn't mean that you must avoid "difficult" topics, or that you cannot reprove and rebuke. Just don't let your frustration with the often glacial pace of change tempt you into becoming a driver rather than a teacher (and leader).

5) Don't Mistake Brashness and Tactlessness for "Courage" and "Honesty"

There are many ways to handle most problems, some good and some bad, and which is which may depend uniquely on the situation. You may have courage, but being too eager for an opportunity to show it can make you fight when you should encourage or delay or befriend or ignore. Remember Peter's sword.

6) Concentrate On The Ones Who Care

It's easy to think that a little attention and youthful enthusiasm could really "turn old Bro. Smith around." But human beings are creatures of habit, and inertia is a powerful force in our lives. The problem is, the only one who usually has much leverage in a man's life is him. This means that a good intention can easily become a "project," at which time it becomes harder and harder to move on, cut your losses (so to speak), and find some one who wants to grow. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. Find thirstier horses.

I shouldn't have to say this, but I will: I'm not suggesting that you abandon those whose zeal is flagging, or whose commitment may be slipping. But don't spend all your time trying to repair what's not in your power, and ignore people who are already eager to learn and do more. Jesus and His apostles were careful not to waste too much time on those who did not want the truth and did not want to learn. You should be too.

7) Don't Try To Preach Like A Preacher

In particular, don't emulate the style of well-known preachers 40 years your elder. For one thing, it just sounds odd when a young preacher talks like an old preacher. For another, those old preachers often borrowed their style from another older brother that they admired, so the style may be twice that old by now. Language, particularly the spoken part, is a dynamic, living thing (which can be good or bad). Words and mannerisms that were moving and effective 40 (or 80) years ago may not have the same effect now.

Don't let your delivery distract from your message. Hopefully, those men are not popular and well-respected because of their style alone; one can hope that it is their message and their effectiveness at getting it across that brings them the reputation that they may enjoy. Truth is timeless. So keep in mind that effectiveness begins with content, then is augmented (or hindered) by the delivery.

The sad fact is that just being a preacher, and doing it fairly frequently, does not automatically make you a good speaker. So sounding like a "preacher" may make people recognize that you're "preaching", but it's no guarantee that it will make them listen more, or that it will make your preaching more effective. Which are you more concerned about? Sounding "like a preacher", or being effective in convincing and teaching and exhorting your listeners? Be yourself, and talk in a way that is effective for you and your listeners.

8) Be A Good Speaker, Not A Stylish One

You can be enjoyable to listen to, but not effective in carrying the argument. But if you are a good speaker, you will be effective, and as a happy side benefit, your listeners will also enjoy listening to you.

Of course, you can have some effect by sheer strength of your message or your personality. But that effect will be greatly less than what it could be, and your listeners will not enjoy it.

Good speaking has a lot in common with good writing (see Rule 9 for more on that). But you can rarely simply read a lesson (even if it's a well-written one and you read well aloud) and make it a good speech. Speaking is an interactive activity, whether or not your audience is actually saying anything back to you out loud. All audiences respond in some way, and speaking is the delivery of a message, while interacting with the audience directly in order to get it across.

A good speaker has to use his voice and words well, but also his eyes and ears if he can, to be sensitive and reactive to the state of his audience: their interest level, their involvement, their agreement or disagreement, their fatigue (see Rule 3), even their mood. It is foolish for you to seek to impose your will, in some show of speakerly control over presentation; that is almost never going to get it done. You must learn to cooperate with your audience, and to work with them to achieve the maximum effect, whether that turns out to be great or small.

As for your words - this is not academia. Be direct. Be concise. Be personal and personable. Be accurate. Be specific. Be empathetic. Be reasoned and rational. Be passionate, even emotional as appropriate (but never for show).

Perhaps most fundamentally, know your material. Know both what to say, and what not to say, before you jump in.

9) Learn To Write Well

Almost nothing else you can do will have more long-term and positive effects on your own scholarship and knowledge, as well as your effectiveness in teaching, as learning to write, and writing, well.

Note: you do not learn to write well by reading what is typically written by brethren. Sadly, the majority of brethren whose writing I have read are truly awful writers. That doesn't mean they're not good people, or that they're not good Bible students, or even that the article was not worthwhile. It simply means that they are not good at the art of writing, and like poor speaking, poor writing hampers the message greatly.

Instead, you learn to write well by doing these three things (and there are no other steps than these that I know of):
  1. Learn the rules of language. This doesn't mean that you always must be a slave to a bunch of formalities; it just means that, like all good writers, you must be aware when and whether to break or bend one to make the sentence or paragraph more effective. Read Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, and you'll pretty much have this nailed, or at least as much as you'll need. Then keep it close to your desk and USE it whenever you're not sure.
  2. Read good writing: not writing about "good" topics, or writing by "good" people, or even writing that's entertaining - just good writing, by masters (this does not include most modern popular writers of any genre, moral considerations aside).
  3. Practice, regularly, until you die.

Repeat as needed.

Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong. - 1 Cor. 16:13

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