Recommended reading from a surprising source

A book by Tony Blair’s chief speech-writer might seem a surprising resource for preachers. But there is much in  “The Art of Speeches and Presentations – the secrets of making people remember what you say” by Philip Collins (Wiley 2012) to encourage, help and challenge the preacher.

Encouragement for preachers

How many preachers have (haven’t?) been told that a sermon is an outmoded monologue in an age of mass-media in which people can only absorb 30 second sound-bites? Here is the opening to Collins’ book:

Speeches still matter, even in a technological age. The act of persuasion is ubiquitous in professional life and very many people need to master it. The act of making a speech is a medium that has remained essentially unchanged through the ages.

He sets the scene:

A man steps forward out of the dark, alone, trailed by a spotlight. He walks slowly towards the podium which is the only thing that decorates the otherwise naked stage….He walks into a strange isolation, for he knows, as does his audience, that he is about to beg their undivided attention for at least 25 minutes, probably more. There is no other setting in which we permit anyone to speak, uninterrupted, for so long.

Well, Philip Collins probably isn’t a church-goer! But he is convinced (and convincing) about the enduring power of public speech:

The technological means of transmission is, at once, simple and sophisticated – the medium of speech. Let’s go back to that man who is walking onto a stage. He approaches the podium where he stops, clears his throat and starts to speak. The normal rules of conversation are about to be suspended for the time it takes him to expound his argument. Against all the expectations and regular predictions of its demise, public speech still counts. It always will and it is a skill that needs to be mastered.

Help for preachers

How this skill can be mastered, Collins explains in his book in detail – literally, as he uses the word DETAIL as a mnemonic  (“there is a little known law that, unless your book contains a mnemonic that summarises the case, your publisher is allowed to kill you”!)

Delivery: the speech is written to be spoken. You need to think how you can make your delivery as effective as possible.

Expectations: what do the people you will be speaking to expect from the day? Just as important, what do you expect? What do you want people to do once they have heard your speech?

Topic: what is your speech essentially about? Tell me in a single sentence. If you can’t do that, you don’t know. And if you don’t know you aren’t ready to do a speech.

Audience: who are you trying to reach? Who will be in your audience and what do they think about the topic that you are set to address? Will they be favourable or hostile to your approach?

Individual: a speech should be delivered by you. It should not just be any old speech. It needs to present the best possible version of you, which is subtly different from the hopeless advice to “be yourself”.

Language: use simple terms and say nothing that an intelligent layman would not understand. It is not big and clever to use jargon and vocabulary that nobody would ever use when talking to their friends.

If you follow these rules nobody can promise that you will be a brilliant speaker. But there is a good chance you will not be a poor speaker.

Collins helpfully distinguishes between the different functions of a speech (sermon?)

All speeches can be divided into at least one of the three functions:

1. Information: a speech whose principal function is to leave an audience better informed than they were before you began.

2. Persuasion: a speech whose principal function is to persuade an audience of a case that, before you began, had either never occurred to them or to which they had been actively hostile.

3.  Inspiration: a speech whose principal function is to inspire the audience to do something that they had previously not considered doing or had been refusing to do or, occasionally, to carry on doing something.

He points all out that all speeches will have more than one function but one will be dominant, and he states that this should be persuasion. He also adds one other specialised function:

There is actually a fourth type of speech. This is the ceremonial address that commemorates an occasion such as a wedding or the eulogy at a funeral.

In addition, the book covers a variety of topics of interest to preachers such as:

  • being true to  your personality (“The importance of not being Barack Obama”)
  • the preparation of a full text (“Don’t ditch the script. Almost nobody speaks well off the cuff though almost everybody thinks they do”)
  • the problem of jargon (“A dozen dreadful jargon terms, dead metaphors, terrible cliches and assorted horrors”)
  • the ideal length for a speech (“As short as possible…aim for 20 minutes”)

Challenge to preachers:

Obviously, there are some connections between a speech and a sermon that do not match – not least the potential outcome for which every preacher prays – that his message may come “not just with words, but with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction”. None the less, the challenge to strive for excellence which Collins advocates should be all the more compelling for the preacher:

Your job is to do your job as well as you can. It is to be the best speaker on the podium that you are expected to stand at, doing the best speech that you can do on the topic that you have been asked to address.

There in no greater topic than that which the preacher has been “asked to address” (and address every week rather at the occasional special event).

There is one sentence in the book that has stuck in my mind. Answering the question why there are so few great speeches today, Collins writes:

The first and most important reason why great speech is so much harder now is that there are fewer causes that demand greatness.

*The recommended price for the book is £14.99 but you can download on Kindle for £7.12



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About Peter Grainger

Peter Grainger worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators in India, Pakistan and Nigeria for 20 years, served as a Pastor in three churches for 25 years (most recently from 1992-2009 in Charlotte Chapel, Edinburgh) and now directs 2 Timothy 4 (, ' strengthening Scottish preaching.' He is married to Nita and they have two adult children and a grandson.

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