Presentation is one of the most important aspects of preaching. It is all too easy to have good material, but ruin it with poor presentation.
The worst failing of large numbers of preachers and teachers is being boring, and quickly losing the interest of the people listening. One estimate I heard once was that about eighty percent of students think their teachers are boring, and unfortunately this is frequently true in church. If you are boring, then your message will be lost. You have wasted your time in preparation, and wasted the time of the people having to listen to you.
Style and presentation is the main thing that determines whether a message is boring, or whether it brings enthusiasm and interest to the listeners.
Some basic principles of public speaking
1. Do not try to be "natural"
If you try to be “natural”, you will probably be boring. This is because preaching or teaching is mostly monologue, which is very different from natural speech. A normal one-to-one conversation has only very short lengths of monologue, before the other person speaks. It often has only very few gestures and is mostly in a monotone, with little or no variation in pitch or loudness of speech (unless it is an argument). If this is applied to public speaking, the result will certainly be boring.
2. Adopt the role of teacher
When speaking in public, it is essential to make a conscious choice to adopt a different role and different style from normal conversation. As a teacher or preacher you are the centre of attention for a group of people, and are therefore in a defined role.
3. Increase your energy level
When you come in front of an audience, you need to make a deliberate increase in your energy level. It is necessary to become a bit larger than life, and be more expressive and animated than you normally are. This takes energy and will make you tired, but you need to do it for the sake of your listeners. Staying at a normal or low energy level will have the result of you being boring.
4. Adapt to your audience
Your style and presentation needs to be different with a larger group, than it is with a smaller group of people. As a general guideline, the larger the audience, the greater energy level you will need to use, because you will be further away from many of your listeners.
With a small group, formal preaching or teaching is less appropriate. It can be more effective to adopt a more informal style, even to sit round a table and teach with more interaction and discussion.
Try to reduce the distance between you and the audience. Being up on a stage is suitable for a large meeting, but not so appropriate for a smaller group.
Keys to prevent boredom
1. Enthusiasm and passion
If you are not enthusiastic about your subject, your listeners won't be either. People will tend to remember teachers who were enthusiastic about their subject. If you love your subject, and are enthusiastic about it, then that is very contagious.
The preacher needs to have a passion for Jesus. Teaching and preaching the Word of God is not an academic exercise, but a proclamation of life-changing truth in the power of the Holy Spirit. If God has changed your life, you should naturally be excited about it. Like Jeremiah, you need to have "fire in your bones" (Jer 20:9). However we need to be careful not to have enthusiasm without good content, as that can be very dangerous, and mislead people.
2. Use of your voice
Speaking in a monotone will quickly kill any interest your audience has, as it is one of the major causes of boredom. To keep interest, you need to employ a variety of speech. The volume of the voice should range between loud and soft, the pitch between high and low, and the speed between fast and slow. If you remain at average volume, pitch or speed, then you will quickly become boring. You will need to speak more slowly than in a normal conversation, particularly to a larger group.
It is also of the utmost importance to speak clearly, to enunciate your words distinctly, and not to mumble. You will need to learn to project your voice, speaking from your chest, so a person at the back of the room can hear you clearly, particularly if you do not have a microphone. Projecting the voice does not necessarily mean speaking more loudly.
It can be good to practice in an empty hall with a friend listening at the back. During your message it can also be helpful to have a friend at the back who will be honest enough to make signs to you if you are speaking too quietly, or too quickly, or are getting boring.
3. Eye contact
Eye contact with the congregation is essential. Look around the group as you speak, from front to back, and from left to right, and include the balcony if there is one. Another major cause of boredom is lack of eye contact, when the speaker has his head in the notes all the time, or continually looks above the heads of the audience. However, you should not focus your attention on one particular person. Young men should be careful not to continue staring a the same attractive girl!
4. Gestures and movement
Rather than holding onto the pulpit out of fear and insecurity, do not be afraid to use your hands and arms to communicate. In front of a congregation, you will need to use larger gestures than you are normally comfortable with. At a distance, smaller gestures will not be very visible. If you have enough confidence, try and come out from behind the pulpit, and stand nearer the audience.
You need to be careful not to use the same gestures all the time, as these become a distraction. The most effective way of showing up any annoying gestures is to ask someone to film you speaking, then play the film back double speed.
Techniques to keep people’s attention
These are some suggestions of how to improve your presentation, and make your speaking more interesting to listen to.
Bring some variety. Do not always do the same thing. Vary all the aspects of your speaking, including the structure of the message, the way you present your message, your use of visual aids, even where you stand to speak.
2. Illustrations and stories
Stories and illustrations are powerful, as people often remember the stories more than the message. A message should have several illustrations, so it can be good to plan which illustrations you will use, as you prepare the outline of your message. Every major point of a message needs a story or illustration. Many preachers make a collection of good illustrations and anecdotes, which they can use when appropriate.
Stories can be found from many sources. An easy source is your own personal experience of life. However, you must be careful with confidentiality if you tell stories about other people. The Bible is full of stories, illustrations and examples. History is another good source of stories, including church history, and the history of Christian missions. Many good illustrations can be found in general reading, including novels, magazines and newspapers. There is no reason we cannot use our own imagination and make up stories, as Jesus did when telling parables.
Tell the audience something about yourself. This can be something that happened recently, some event during your childhood, or how the message you are preaching made a change to your life.
Do not be afraid of using humour, if you are confident in using it, as it always gets people’s attention. Humour can be spontaneous, or it can be planned during your preparation. The Bible does describe funny events, and make amusing comments.
However humour must be used carefully. It must not be irreverent towards God, frivolous, crude, coarse, or casual about sin. We need to ask, “Is it edifying?”. We need to be careful we do not encourage people to laugh at immorality or other sin.
We also need to ensure that we do not allow the use of humour to distract from what God is doing in people’s lives at that time.
You should deliver the content of your message with the appropriate feeling, which will lead the audience to have the appropriate feelings. Boring teachers tend to show no emotion. However, you should avoid the opposite extreme of being over-emotional.
Use your imagination to do something a bit different. One example is to tell well-known Bible stories from a different perspective, perhaps focussing on one of the minor characters and telling it from their point of view. You could invite some people to give a role-play, or even do it yourself!
7. Use of visual aids
The main thing to consider with the use of visual aids, is that they must be big enough and distinct enough for the congregation to see them clearly.
One of the main pieces of equipment to use today is Powerpoint, where information on the computer is displayed on a screen. An increasing number of churches and organisations have this available. You will need to learn to use the Powerpoint programme to design your slide show. I suggest that you try out the equipment and run through the display in the room beforehand. In some churches you can control it from the pulpit, otherwise you need someone to change the slide when you request it. If you want to use Powerpoint, it is courteous to arrange it beforehand with the church, and send them your slide-show file a few days before, so they can set it up for you.
There are many different things you can use Powerpoint for. These are a few examples:
Photographs of Bible places, or archaeological artifacts
Drawings of Bible characters, places, or events
Cartoons of Bible events
Maps - (make sure the map is not too detailed, so it can be seen clearly)
Diagrams - (either you draw them, or copy them from elsewhere)
The main points of your message, and the Bible references
A breakdown of the passage you are preaching on
The Internet is a wonderful source of images, but you need to be careful not to break copyright laws. Make sure that you are allowed to use the image for teaching or educational use. If you have a scanner, you can use diagrams or pictures from books, but again you need to keep the copyright laws.
More traditional visual aids include the whiteboard, or blackboard. This can be helpful for drawing diagrams, or writing key words. You need to be able to write clearly, and large enough for people at the back to read clearly.
The Overhead Projector (OHP) was the main piece of equipment for several years, until largely superceded by Powerpoint. Prepared acetates were useful for diagrams, maps, or listing main points. Again your writing must be clear. It is best to avoid the use of red or green coloured pens, as these do not show up well.
For a smaller group, or in a teaching situation, you may consider giving out printed material on a hand-out. These can contain abbreviated notes with the main points and Bible references, maps or diagrams. The main thing to is not to make them too long - one or two pages at the most.
Use of language
1. Theological language
You need to be careful with theological jargon. If you use any long or technical theological words, you need to define what they mean. (You could use the Powerpoint for this). It is also important that you define more familiar Christian concepts, such as grace, justification and redemption, as it is very important that people know their meaning. Resist the temptation to show off your knowledge by using long and complicated words.
You also need to be careful with your use of pronouns, so you do not separate yourself from the audience. The use of “we” is more inclusive than “you”. You are a fellow Christian with them, so identify with them. Do not give the impression that you have your life completely sorted out, and that you have completely applied all the principles of scripture. However, avoid the opposite extreme of seeming a failure. You need to show that your message is effective in your own life if you want it to change the lives of the people listening.
Other points to note
1. Reading Scripture
You need to learn how to read the passage of Scripture in an interesting way. This takes practice. You also need to learn to read clearly, and without making too many mistakes. Try to bring a more dramatic reading, using your voice to communicate effectively with feeling, otherwise the reading can become very boring. Reading from the small sized print from a standard size Bible can be difficult when standing at the pulpit. You may want to print it out using a larger font and wider spacing.
2. Reading from a book
You may find a passage in a book you have read recently which makes a perfect illustration for your message. Again, the danger is becoming boring, as reading a long passage from a book effectively is very difficult. It can be better to summarise the story in your own words, and only read very short key sections.
3. Use of notes
Very few people are able to preach without any notes. The best notes are brief, noting the main points and sub-points, Bible references and illustrations. Some people use small index cards. Make sure that the writing or print is of a large enough size so you can read it easily when standing at the front. It is best not to write out your message word for word, and then read it, as that makes it boring to listen to. You will need to experiment to find what sort of notes suit you best.
4. Asking questions
It is appropriate to ask questions to the audience when you are in a teaching situation, rather than preaching in church. In most churches you will not get much, if any, response if you ask questions when you are preaching. However, some congregations will respond to questions, and it can be a good way of involving the people listening to you. Remember to ask open questions, those which will make them think.
With a smaller group it is possible to have quite fruitful discussions. For more on asking questions, and how to lead small group Bible studies, please see the Small Group Study page.
You may be able to split the people into smaller groups, and give them some questions to discuss, followed by feed-back to the rest of the meeting. This is not normally possible when preaching, but some churches may be used to doing this. It is very time-consuming, so needs to be planned carefully.
6. Receiving questions
Again, in a teaching situation, you need to let your audience ask you questions. You need to decide what you are happy with: whether you allow questions during your teaching, or to leave them to the end. In only very few circumstances will you be asked questions while you are preaching in church. However you need to be willing to answer questions if people come up to you at the end of the service.
If you do not know the answer, be honest and say you do not know. However, you may think of some other relevant response.
7. What do you wear?
The basic rule of what to wear, is to be slightly better dressed than your audience. You need to aim not to dress too smartly or too casually for the group. Wearing a suit and tie to speak to the youth group will tend to distance you from them. However people may frown on jeans and tee-shirt in a church service. Most churches are more casual today than they were in the past.
You will probably feel embarrassed if you are not dressed appropriately, so if in doubt, you can contact the person who invited you to speak, and ask what dress would be appropriate to the group.