Thanks to my friend Jim Woods for suggesting the title of this post!
Over the last ten years, one of the main responsibilities in my day job has been coordinating our college Chapel services. Sometimes I’ve been heavily involved in selecting speakers, musicians, and technical teams. At other times I have delegated some of these tasks to others.
But one thing has remained the same: I’ve had the opportunity to learn from the successes and mistakes of many speakers. During my time as Chapel coordinator, I’ve worked with hundreds of speakers ranging from pastors, students, civic leaders, missionaries, and professors, all the way to leaders in their 80’s and beyond. We even had an Elvis impersonator once (no kidding).
One day recently I began to write down some of the things I’ve learned from hearing so many diverse speakers over time. I chose twenty-one of the most important tips and suggestions.
If you are a pastor, teacher, speaker, or any type of communicator, these tips will help you better connect with your audience and avoid some of the biggest land mines of public speaking. (These are not necessarily listed in order of importance.)
1. Don’t use a large number of Powerpoint slides. The more slides (and the more text on each slide) you use, the less effective you usually are.
2. Don’t use cheesy pictures in your slides. If in doubt, have a couple of people look over your slides to inspect the “cheese” factor.
3. Don’t use cheesy, low-quality videos from Youtube. When you use video, make sure it is high-quality and relates directly to your message.
4. Don’t use pictures and videos without proper copyright permission. If in doubt, don’t use it.
5. Always have video clips with you on a flash drive in several formats. (If you have clips in .mov, .mpg, and .mp4 formats, you should almost always be fine.)
6. Always contact someone at the venue ahead of time to make sure they have proper video equipment. If possible, send your all your media to them ahead of time to make sure it works.
7. Provide a detailed script or outline to the people running media. Include clear markings or highlights where to use it in your message. Rehearse with them if possible.
8. Don’t embed audio or video within Powerpoint slides. This almost never works properly.
9. Make sure your choice of audio, video and images connects with your audience. For example, don’t use a funny commercial on YouTube from the 80’s and expect it to connect with a college audience.
10. Have a backup plan in case your technology fails. There are many things that can go wrong with technology. Can you still deliver your message if you have no computers or projectors?
11. Be energetic. You should be yourself, but be a higher-energy version of yourself. You may need the assistance of a caffeinated product.
12. Don’t “perform” your message. Be real and authentic. Talk to the people in your audience as your friends. Don’t lecture them or scold them.
13. Wrap up your message by the allotted ending time. One time in our Chapel service a speaker was running past his ending time and didn’t seem to care. He said, “The clock doesn’t mean anything to me.” The clock does, however, always mean something to your audience. If you don’t respect time limitations, people will quickly lose interest and become more impatient with each passing minute.
(Side note: This doesn’t usually happen in our Chapel services, but I’ve occasionally seen speakers go over time, pointing to the fact that the “Holy Spirit was leading me.” That may or may not be true, but I always wonder why the Holy Spirit didn’t lead them to plan and prepare more effectively.)
14. Identify a section of your message you can cut if needed. Despite the best planning, sometimes things may go wrong and you will have less time than you thought. Perhaps the music went too long, or there were some technical problems. It’s wise to have a version of your message that is two-thirds as long as the original, just in case.
15. Have a clear call to action at the end of your message. What do you want the audience to do as a result of the message? One of the biggest mistakes I see speakers make is just ending the message without a call to action.
16. Don’t read your notes. There are some speakers who can use a manuscript, deliver it word for word, and it’s not noticeable. However, this is rare. Usually, if someone is going through a manuscript word for word, it sounds like a script and they lose a connection with the audience. It’s better to speak to the audience, not at them.
17. Have a backup of your notes. If you’re using an iPad, have a paper copy. What if your device freezes up, dies, or there is no wireless access? Have a plan in case of emergencies.
18. Remember: shorter is almost always better. No one ever complains about a short message. One of my favorite speakers, a retired pastor in his 80’s named Ben Merold, routinely speaks for about 20 minutes. His messages are short, direct, and they contain no fluff. If you’re going to err, err on the side of being brief. Even the Sermon on the Mount only takes about twenty minutes to read.
19. Have a single point that you want to communicate. There should be one clear, dominant idea the focuses the whole message. One of the biggest mistakes that causes speakers to lose their audience is trying to fit too many ideas into one message. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have multiple points. It just means they should all tie together. An excellent book on this topic is Nancy Duarte’s Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences.
20. Use stories to capture the audience’s attention. It’s easy to speak in generalities or principles, but generalities and principles by themselves don’t change lives. Stories do. Give your message hands and feet by illustrating it with good stories. For an entire course on storytelling, check out The Art of Storytelling: From Parents to Professionals by Hannah B. Harvey.
21. Never underestimate the power you have to change lives with your message. You may not have a fancy title, important position, huge platform, or advanced degree. But you do have a message inside you that can impact others.
One of the most powerful messages I’ve ever heard was delivered by a female student at our school. The bottom line: Don’t be afraid to break through preconceived expectations about who is “qualified” to be an authority and change the world.