Practical Tips for Public Speaking

For this episode of the Sermonary podcast, Josh Taylor sat down with Jack Hestar, the Teaching Pastor at Mars Hill Church to cover six tips for improving your public speaking during your sermons!

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Public speaking is the second most-feared thing in the world, just after spiders.  But it’s a skill that can be learned, and if you’re a pastor, it’s one that you should improve.  For this episode of the Sermonary podcast, Josh Taylor sat down with Jack Hestar, the Teaching Pastor at Mars Hill Church to cover six tips for improving your public speaking during your sermons!  But first, let’s start by covering why it’s important for pastors to become better public speakers.

Why is it important for Pastors to become better speakers?

Jack: If our content matters (and it does!) then your delivery mechanism is just as important.  I always think of preaching as both an art and a science.  The science of it is your exegesis, and the art is in how you deliver it- whether that’s adding your own humor or personal stories to it- it’s the hermeneutics coming in with your exegesis, which is a very important part of delivery.  And it requires some practice in some very specific areas!

Read Ahead in Your Notes

Josh: Let’s jump into your tips for public speaking- and this first one is learning to read ahead in your notes.  Can you explain what that is, how you do it, and what it looks like when this needs to be fixed?

Jack: A lot of people like to have a manuscript in front of them when they preach- and I think that’s a very good idea.  Some people like to have notes in front of them instead, but I think that a manuscript is a better preparation tool.  That’s because you may want to use that sermon again.  If you do have to pull it out later, you won’t be as familiar with it, but with a manuscript you won’t have to remember all the details again.  So the more you put in your manuscript, the more you can remember.  

But, when you have more of it written out, you also have to learn to read in a way that your head isn’t down the whole time.  You have to learn to read a line ahead.  It’s difficult at first, but once you practice it a few times it gets very easy.  You read, and in the middle of your sentence you pick up that next line, then immediately before you finish that sentence, you train your eyes to go back down to your paper, and then swivel the other way with your head.  That way, you’re also panning your audience as you check your manuscript.  There’s no period or pause, because that’s what reading ahead is designed to eliminate.  

To practice this, grab anything- an unfamiliar book, even something that doesn’t make sense- and practice it.  As a matter of fact, it’s probably a good idea to do this with something you’re not familiar with, because it trains your eyes and brain even more! 

In essence, you’re training your brain to do two things at once- to say what you’re saying, but also to read what you’re going to say.  Dr. Seuss books are a great example- because they don’t make sense, and the words can be difficult, so they train your brain to read and deliver without that extra familiarity.

Practice Reading Without Sounding Like You’re Reading

Josh: The next tip is one that you’d give me a lot of feedback on when I served under you, and it’s practice reading without sounding like you’re reading.  So can you explain what that is?

Jack: How many times have you heard someone preach that you know, and you think, “They don’t sound anything like that in real life!”  You want to avoid that- your regular preaching voice should be the same voice you use when you’re talking conversationally.  That’s how you connect with someone, by having a conversation with them! 

Here’s how to practice:  Again, get something that you’re not familiar with, and practice reading it, but say it in a way that sounds like you are just talking naturally.  Remove any rhyming and cadence, and don’t be afraid to summarize and paraphrase so that it sounds like your normal conversation.  It’s difficult at first, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes.  

This skill is important because you never know when you’re going to have to step up and preach a sermon that you’re not prepared to preach.  If you’ve developed this kind of skill, then you can take anything and still make it relatable.  When you have a conversation with someone, it’s so much more memorable than if you hear someone reading something to you.

Using your natural speaking voice doesn’t mean you never use your reading voice, though.  To emphasize quotes you’re reading, like Scripture or a quote from a commentary, read the way that you normally would read.  That way, people understand that you’re not using your own words.  But, if your whole sermon sounds like that, it’s hard to differentiate when you’re reading something and when you’re preaching.     

Color-coordinate your notes

Jack: Back in the day, I would use highlighters to mark off the sections of my sermon: illustrations looked a certain way, references from Scripture look a certain way, and I’d bullet-point things I had to hit below the thought.  Sermonary is a great tool for this because they allow you to color-code those boxes.  So, each box could be a thought, illustration, a joke, whatever you want it to be, and then you can color-coordinate those.  So, for example, maybe green is always your illustrations.  That way, when you look down, your eyes are already picking up on what and where you’re going next.  So as you wrap up one section, you’re already finishing that thought and preparing to transition to an illustration.  It’s a great way of organizing your message, but also a great way of understanding the flow of how you’re going to deliver it.  

Use Humor- But Plan For it to Flop

Josh:  Another thing you talk about is humor, and I think this is something that a lot of pastors struggle with- maybe what we think is funny isn’t funny to other people, or we don’t have the greatest filter and things don’t always land well.  So, what should pastors do with humor?

Jack: Well, I LOVE humor, but it can be daunting to use- I’m probably one of the worst people to deliver humor.  One thing I had to get over pretty quickly was realizing that the jokes I made weren’t always going to be as funny as I thought they would be.  However, I know it needs to be there because it draws people in.  It’s a very effective tool at delivering your message.   

So here are two tips for using humor.  First, don’t pause after you deliver the punchline.  If people start laughing, you can pause and smile with them then, but don’t create an awkward moment.  The second way of dealing with it is to acknowledge that it didn’t go over very well- so, you say something, then look, and say, “Okay people, that was a joke, this is the part where you’re supposed to smile and laugh.  I guess this wasn’t as funny as I thought it was going to be at 2 a.m. this morning.” What you’ll find is that people may not laugh at your joke, but they’ll laugh at you laughing at your failed joke, so it still brings people in as effectively as if the joke had been great.  

Practice for Expressiveness and Variation

Josh: Your fifth tip is to be expressive when you’re preaching.  How do you make sure that happens, even if you might not be feeling it?

Jack: When delivering sermon after sermon seems exhausting, you have to come back to the idea of what you’re doing, and how divine and holy the art of preaching is.  You have to get into that moment so that you’re able to give it your best delivery.  One of the ways that you can help yourself do that is, when you talk, open your mouth really big.  Not necessarily all the way when you’re delivering it, but when you’re practicing it, go as big as you can.  The bigger you open your mouth, the more expressive you’re going to be.  When you open your mouth wide, all of a sudden your face gets into it, your body gets into it, your shoulders and hands start coming out- but if you don’t move my mouth and just sit here and talk, everything else wants to sit down and shut down.  It’s a great way for not only you to connect to the passion about what you’re preaching about, but for your congregation to feel that energy and emotion of what you’re preaching, as well.  Overact when you practice.  

If you’re just starting out in preaching, I would encourage you to practice your message and go over it as many times as you can before delivering it on Sundays.  If you do that, you’ll be amazed at how little you’ll have to go over it later on, because you’ll become very comfortable with how you put together and deliver your sermon.  You can read it over one time and kinda get the flow of it.  But the earlier on, plan out and practice adding variation to your delivery.  

Have Great Eye Contact

Josh: Your last tip is eye contact- we can’t have this habit of being in the same spot every single time and not even noticing that we’re not scanning the audience.  What’s your advice on that?

Jack: Eye contact is just as important in preaching as it is in a personal conversation.  We all have had those awkward experiences with people who aren’t making eye contact while talking to us.  Similarly, we’ve felt connected to people when they’ve looked in our eyes while speaking.  Preaching is no different.  There’s a little trick to it with preaching, though, because you really don’t have to have eye contact with everyone in the room.  You don’t really have to have eye contact with anybody in the room- it just has to look like you do.  You can actually look over the top of people’s heads and have them feel like you’re looking right at them.  

So, if you’re preaching in the same place all the time, pick a spot to your left, another spot right in front of you, and a third spot all the way to your right.  This is helpful if you have cameras, too, because you can pick those spots to be in the line of the camera.  When you’re practicing at home, envision those three spots, and tilt your head accordingly.  This exercise trains your brain to not talk to the same group of people all the time when you’re preaching, to make everyone feel included.  It’s all about being disciplined, and about picking out those spots and making sure that you’re talking to all of them.  You’ll be amazed at how many people feel like you are making eye contact with them because you’re looking in that area and over the top of their heads.  

Improving Your Public Speaking Skills While Preaching

Josh: I’d encourage everyone to take this list of six things, write them down, and video your sermons for the next couple of weeks.  Many of you are already doing this anyway!  Go back and watch yourself, and review yourself on the five things you can assess (color-coordinating doesn’t really fit, but you can assess the other factors).  Going back and watching yourself is probably the best way to improve your public speaking skills.

Jack:  I’d add- Sermonary has a great set-up for preaching from your iPad- and another of those things that can be distracting is flipping your pages.  So if you can “flip” your notes, and no one knows that you’ve flipped that page, that’s going to help you all the more!  

Using Sermonary, you can consolidate all these tips into that one program- you’ve got the color coordination, you know where you’re going, you’ve learned to pick your head up- and having something like Sermonary really helps you to pull all of those things together into one approach.  Then, you practice that over and over again, and you’ll be amazed at how comfortable you’ll feel preaching with something like that in front of you.