I have a confession. Sometimes when I am traveling and unable to sleep, I turn on the TV and channel surf. In those early morning hours, very little holds my attention, not even a Seinfeld rerun. Instead, I end up watching a sermon on a religious channel.
I'm not a Christian, but I'm often captivated. The reason is the preacher's rhetorical power and skills. The memorable ones avoid cheesy histrionics or theatrics.
What a successful preacher knows is that the hundreds or thousands sitting in the pew could be spending their Sunday morning playing golf, sleeping in, or gazing through a bulky newspaper. But there they are filling the auditorium, listening. Actually, when the preacher is especially gifted, they do more than listen. They react with enthusiasm. What's more, they come back week after week.
Over the years, while watching these sermons and even reading a few books on preaching, including Communicating for a Change by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones, I can see that there are few points that are shared by the better preachers. For one, they limit their sermons to a single point, avoiding the temptation to cram every fact or insight that could be bolted on. They understand that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to sit through a 30- to 40-minute talk and remember a lengthy list of points. An effective preacher picks one point and then builds everything around his position, which becomes his anchor. Every sentence supports or elaborates on that point.
For another, I noticed that they almost never read from a script or even note cards. It's not that they have memorized their talk word for word, but they have internalized a road map that lays out a course they wish to follow. They know where they are going and aren't afraid that they will lose their way.
What's also common for good preachers is a deep-felt desire to connect emotionally with their audience. This sentiment is no different than an actor's. Their motivation may be aimed at saving souls, but they recognize that to have a fighting chance they first must connect. Otherwise, what they say goes in one ear and out the other. Facts alone don't win over an audience.
Senior managers giving a presentation to investors, employees, or the media would benefit from spending time watching great preachers ply their craft. While there are certainly different styles and one size doesn't fit all, the principles stay the same.
Steve Jobs of Apple is one of the most effective CEO speakers. He usually leaves his PowerPoint presentation at home and rarely looks at a script. He keeps his talks limited to one point and rarely strays. You can feel his enthusiasm, for instance, for the product he's unveiling. You get the feeling that he is talking directly to you, even though the auditorium is jammed with 3,000 people. Like a great preacher, Jobs wants his audience to leave and do something that they may have not done before listening to him. In his case, he wants you to hunger for a new product. And when he's succeeded, you've been persuaded.
Fred Bratman is president of Hyde Park Financial Communications.