I’m not the greatest speaker in the world. In my line of work, that is inspirational speaking (speaking associated with faith but different than preaching) there are a lot of speakers better than myself. I count Rob Bell as one of these, and Francis Chan has always amazed me. My pastor, Rick McKinley is one of the best speakers I know. And in my travels to different churches, I’ve met dozens of speakers you have yet to hear about who astound me.
But I speak. And when I prepare a talk, I’ve discovered I prepare differently than the average speaker. To be honest, I’m not strategic about this, it’s just how my mind works.
But first, here’s what I don’t do, and it’s a common mistake: I don’t present and defend a point. In other words, if my point is that we need to engage the fatherless, I don’t open by saying we need to engage the fatherless and then list reasons. Thousands of speakers do this, and it’s not very effective.
Did you know sitting and listening to a speaker is one of the very worst ways you can learn anything? It’s true. And the reason the have a point and defend it method is not effective is because you are guiding your audience through a justification of your point, not a realization of your point. In other words, we come to believe an idea through a series of experiences, some of them quite mystical, like hearing a song or meeting a kid or reading a book and then watching a movie. And then the light bulb went on, and we realized we should all engage fatherless kids. So when we had to give a speech about it, we jumped on wickepedia and gave some justifications for why people should engage fatherless kids. But justifications are only good after you realize an idea, not before. Justification is not how the human brain actually comes to understand an idea at all. By the end of your talk, the only people who are going to agree with you are the people who agreed with you going into it, most likely.
Instead, I try to shape a talk around the way a human brain actually comes to a realization. In other words, I mimic those experiences the brain needs to encounter in order to have that “aha” moment. This is why, when people hear me speak, they often say “I was wondering where you were going until the end.” The stories I tell may seem unrelated, but they are all going somewhere. For instance, I used to give a talk about how the gospel of Jesus was relational rather than propositional (don’t get me wrong, there are propositions, but it’s the relationship that redeems, not the ideas.) So here is a sample of how I structured that talk:
1. Told the story of sitting with a friend who had read the Bible and a tract sharing the gospel, who asked me why the tract was so clear and the Bible was so elusive. He asked if the tract may simply be a translation of the gospel for a culture that thinks in lists and bullet points, and wondered what got lost in the translation.
2. Shared my experience teaching a class on the gospel, in which I presented the gospel without mentioning Jesus and nobody noticed. (A Christian college class)
3. Discussed the satirical idea that Alex Tribek might be at the gates of heaven, letting people in who can list the five tenants of Calvinism (for 500).
4. Asked the audience how much right theology had to be understood to be a Christian (to be redeemed in Christ) and then said that most of them just excluded children and the simple.
5. Shared Shakespeare’s understanding of the gospel as presented in his play Romeo and Juliet (incidentally, very much supporting the Calvinistic view but from a relational position.)
And that’s it, really. Then I walk off the stage as the room erupts into chaos and clapping and people fainting and falling over themselves (who knows what happens after I leave. I can only imagine it goes something like this. Though they usually don’t start clapping till I can’t really hear them anymore. Funny how that works.)
So if you’re writing a paper or presenting a talk, sit and consider how it is you came to understand the point you are trying to make. Track it back through conversations, experiences, and list those experiences. Then see if you can tell a series of stories that would guide an audience to the same epiphany. It works pretty well for me.
Now if I were just taller, like Rob Bell, or had that goatee like Francis Chan, I’d be golden. I’ll keep praying about that.