by Rik Danielsen

          In the early days of the American Idol television show, they would show some of the worst auditions imaginable. You may remember those young adults who thought they could sing, but their voices were so bad they could make dogs howl in another time zone. The judges would try to stifle their laughter and then tell the contestants that they should never, under any circumstances, sing again.

How did the contestants take that news? Many were in complete denial. With tears in their eyes, they would say, “I know I can sing. Those judges don’t know what they are talking about.”

My thought is that someone, probably their sweet, loving grandmother, told them over and over again, “You have the voice of an angel.”

Was grandma lying? No, but her love for her grandchild blinded her to the genuine lack of talent the child had. Or,  she loved them so much she could not bring herself to be honest with her little angel. Grandma was right about a lot of things, but she was not the best judge of talent in this case.

How can we get honest feedback on our speaking? There are at least two ways to get the input we need to improve our public speaking:

Listen to yourself. Here in North America the technology to get a video recording of yourself speaking is readily available. If you own or have access to a smartphone, you can get a video of yourself speaking. If you are a pastor or worship leader, the chances that your church records its services are quite high. You can review your “performance” weekly if you so choose.

“Examine everything…” 1 Thessalonians 5:21.

I have a pastor friend who used to listen to audio recordings of his sermons regularly. His goal was to listen for bad habits he might have developed. He was courageous enough to critique and correct himself if he was developing any bad habits. What kind of bad habits do preachers develop? Some will punctuate their sentences with words like: “right?” or “okay?” Can we use those once in a while? Of course, but if you use those at the end of every sentence or major thought, you might have a bad habit that needs to be changed.

What about saying, “uh” or “um” or other filler words? We often do that while we are trying to think of what we want to say next. This is a bad habit that may be the result of a lack of preparation on our part.

Second, you can enlist a coach. Unfortunately, we may be blind to the problems we have in public speaking. As a result, we need to enlist a coach or a group of coaches who can watch us and give us honest feedback on the things we do well and the things we can improve on.

“Listen my son, to your father’s correction.” Proverbs 1:8

Every pastor has a group in his church who is glad to point out his “shortcomings” every week. There was a group in one church that did not like my style of preaching. Their complaint? I would sometimes pause while I was preaching. “You know Charles Stanley does not pause when he’s preaching” (a direct quote). They would usually either point out my deficiencies right before I was going to attempt to lead the congregation into an encounter with the Living God or right after I’d poured my heart out to share a message from God’s word. Oh, goody. Here they come again. 

Listen to those folks to see if there is something you can learn from them, but they are not the coaches you’re looking for. Find someone you have a positive relationship with, someone you know has your best interest at heart, AND someone who will be honest with you. Give that person or that group of people permission to review your speech/sermon and give you feedback. Hopefully, they will give you both positive reinforcement and input on things you can improve on.

Dr. John Parrott was my preaching professor in seminary. At a certain point in the semester, he would bring a video camera into the classroom and each of us would preach a sermon for the class. Later he would bring us in individually, sit us directly in front of the video monitor, and have us watch our sermon. Afterward, he would ask us to critique what we’d seen. I remember thinking I had done a pretty good job. On the other hand, Dr. Parrott was able to show me the ten or twenty things I did wrong. It was a humbling experience to be sure. I do not remember all of the things he said, but I do remember his commenting on my use of gestures. I was emphasizing every syllable of my words. He then proceeded to explain how to better emphasize my main points with my gestures.

John Parrott was a kind man who cared about his students, but he cared too much not to correct us when we needed it. We need those kinds of coaches in our lives.

I hope you want to grow and improve as a public speaker. One way to do that is to get regular assessments of your speaking. Take those assessments seriously and look for ways to improve your communication skills. You’ll be glad you did and, more importantly, so will your audience.

(Rik Danielsen, BA, M.Div, D.Min., retired pastor and Associational Director of Missions)