I’m a regular preacher (again) and I’ve preached my fair share of dud sermons. Mind you, I’ve also listened to plenty of dud talks from others. What gets me most is when there’s a disconnect between the message and the medium, or the message and the messenger. It’s difficult to listen to an important message that completely lacks passion. It’s frustrating to have to fight to understand where the talk is going, when there doesn’t seem to be any logic or coherence to the message. It’s deadening to listen to the speaker drone on and on without changing pitch or tone or volume or speed.
Be the best bad presenter ever: break the rules, make mistakes, and win them over by Karen Hough caught my attention. It sounded like a book that might have something useful to say to preachers and presenters alike… and it does. Hough critiques 14 rules that are commonly given to public speakers and shows how they can actually get in the way of good communication. She speaks of the respected rules for speaking and why you should break them—mercilessly. This book is built on the conviction that you are part of the message. People want to connect with you, not a proxy of you. If they know you care deeply about your message then they will forgive your clumsiness and mistakes. Passion overrides technique.
I will list the rules Hough says to break, and follow each with the alternative:
- Your purpose is to give a good presentation
“Good” is to a presentation like “fine” is to a compliment. Your purpose is to make something happen!
What purpose does your presentation serve? Having a searingly clear purpose will filter out all the silt from your presentation. Think of the purpose as the destination—the outcome of your presentation. What do you want to have happen? What change will come from you taking the time to talk to these people? (p15)
- Give informational presentations
That’s about as exciting as watching grass grow. Take action!
Remove inform from your list of acceptable actions. Replace it with words such as motivate, convince, teach, inspire, anger, entertain, invigorate.
- Practice in front of a mirror
Mirrors are just a one person show. Practice often, out loud, and on your feet.
Why would you want to submit your audience, and that critical speech, to your first unpleasant dry run?” (p32-33)
- Picture the audience in the underwear
Stupid visuals distance you. Connect with your audience. Who really wants to visualise Bob from accounting in his underwear?
You’re not there to impress your audience with how remarkable you are; you’re there to communicate with them. Become more “audience involved” and less “me involved”. Self-consciousness results from too much attention to yourself, which puts others—your audience—in the background and you in the front. (p42)
- Open with your introduction and close with questions
Like a dreaded college lecturer. Bookends will hook your audience and send them out singing.
People form opinions of others within the first seven to thirty seconds, so a hook must grab people’s attention right away. Give people a reason to listen. Use the power of repetition to teach your main points. Finish with what you want your audience to take away. The risk of finishing with questions is they can take the audience anywhere and completely away from your talk. If you take questions have a closer afterwards.
- You either have confidence or you don’t
That’s bogus. You can teach your body confidence. And your body is your most powerful tool.
Hough comments on research that shows how by changing our bodies we control chemicals that affect our confidence. Body language and tone of voice are both critical features of good communication. (By the way, this is why email is such a poor communication tool for influencing others. It has neither body language or tone of voice.)
- What you say is most important
It’s how you say it that matters.
I don’t agree with this contrast. It’s a ‘both/and’ rather than an ‘either/or’. Truth matters, but so does how we communicate truth. Hough talks about the tools of articulation, volume, pitch, timbre, speed, connection to breath, and silence.
- Scan the back wall to simulate eye contact
Scanning is fake.
Far better to plant a friend in the audience and make regular contact with them—especially if they agree to smile at you regularly!
- Stand behind the podium
Podiums are really, really awful.
Body language is important. People want to see you, not a piece of furniture, so step aside and feel free to move around.
- Explain each topic
Tell stories! Stories are the most powerful way to share information.
Why does this remind me of my good friend Chappo! He was the master story teller, and as he did he explained his topics better than most. People like to hear about people rather than concepts. When it comes to preaching, stories are an excellent way of showing how it all works.
- Have all your bullets on PowerPoint slides
Bullets are so called because they kill good presentations. PowerPoint numbs the brain. You are the presentation.
Personally, I loved this chapter! I’m over PowerPoint. PowerPoint is a scourge—on our ability to communicate effectively and keep an audience awake. Worse yet, it has become a substitute for us. (p97) PowerPoint is a lot like email: it’s a perfectly good tool that should make our lives easier, but it’s become a time-sucking, efficiency-mauling monster. (p98)
If we are going to use PowerPoint, Hough recommends three simple suggestions:
10/24 Only ten words per slide, and never smaller than 24pt font
Don’t read your slides. Your audience is quite capable. Use them to illustrate.
Prefer pictures to words. They will stick in people’s minds.
- If something goes wrong, act like nothing happened
Everyone knows what happened, and ignoring it is weird. Acknowledge it, deal with it, and move on.
- Ignore your nerves, and they will go away
Only zombies never get nervous. Nerves are good—breathe and embrace them.
The truth is, nerves are a great bad thing! They are the body’s way of telling you that you care, that this is important. (p115) A helpful strategy for coming our nerves was developed by Dr Andrew Weir: breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds; hold that breath for 7 seconds; release the breath through your month with a whooshing noise for 8 seconds. This technique is used to help your body calm down.
- Control you emotions at all times
Passion and emotion are okay.
Emotional intelligence is a key concept in managing yourself as a presenter. (p121) Don’t fake it, and don’t be controlled by it, but expressing your true self appropriately to the context is important.
If you’ve been presenting or preaching for a while, and you have a feeling that you’re not really connecting as you should; if people complain you’re a bit hard to understand; if you don’t seem to be motivating change in people; if you think your talks could do with a tune up; then I recommend taking a look at this book.