As preachers, we tend to concentrate on the words of the messages we are presenting. Sometimes we labor over those words, working to craft just the right statement of sermon ideas or the clever turn of a phrase. That’s what preaching is. Words. One word after another until a message is presented to the audience.
There are other channels of communication in preaching besides the words you say. When you are preaching face to face with your hearers, they are receiving 65 percent of your message by means other than words. Your audience is getting a number of messages from you at the game time. Amazing as it is, only 35 percent of speech communication may be verbal. These other channels for communication are tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, even the way you stand and how you are dressed.’
So preaching is much more than words. The verbal message is accompanied by nonverbal messages that signal your attitudes, your personality, your character, your background, your relationship with the audience, and much more. Nonverbal means “without words.” We have noted that oral means “by mouth” and has come to be used for spoken communication. Verbal means “by use of words,” whether spoken or written. Nonverbal, then, is the way we designate all the human communication channels that do not use words to carry the message.
The audience will probably judge the effectiveness of your preaching more by nonverbal elements than verbal. Allen H. Monroe found that audience members think of effective public speaking more in terms of delivery than content. In a study of student responses to speeches, he discovered that the first six characteristics they associated with an ineffective speaker were related to delivery.
The most distracting feature of delivery named by Monroe’s students was a monotonous voice. Others were stiffness, lack of eye contact, fidgeting, lack of enthusiasm, and a weak voice. The student audience liked direct eye contact, alertness, enthusiasm, a pleasant voice, and physical movement. Another student study discovered that for persuasive speeches, delivery was almost three times as important for effectiveness as content.
Whether you or your hearers are conscious of these nonverbal factors, they are having their impact. Just by being there you are communicating, without saying a word. In fact, you cannot not communicate. David Hesselgrave writes, “It seems we cannot do anything without communicating something. To stand is to stand somewhere. And both the “standing” and the “somewhere” communicate.” The nonverbal elements are constantly sending out signals about who you are, your attitudes, your intentions, your sincerity. And these signals are believed. They affect your relationship with your audience before you even begin to speak.
We very often do not handle our nonverbal communication well. We send signals we do not intend and do not even know we are sending them. Others form opinions about us from our nonverbal communication. Common stereotypes demonstrate the conclusions we come to on the basis of nonverbal signals: A person who doesn’t maintain direct eye contact isn’t being sincere. If you’re not looking at me, you are not intrested in what I am saying. A person who dresses poorly cannot be trusted. Men with high-pitched voices are effeminate. Men with low-pitched voices are more credible than those with high-pitched voices. A person sitting with arms folded across the chest is being closed or defensive. Crying is a sign of weakness.
Though few of us would agree to all of these stereotypes, we find our opinions of others affected by just such signals. Since nonverbal elements in speech are not easily isolated, the hearer does not really analyze why he feels the way he does about the speaker. He just gets an overall impression by all the signals he is receiving. It is the harmony of many factors that makes the message clear. Pearson and Nelson cite research indicating that most misunderstandings in oral communication can be traced to the nonverbal signals.
The serious study of nonverbal communication is a fairly recent development. Though some writers have traced the discipline back to Greek rhetoric, others see the first serious mention of it in the nineteenth century efforts to catalog gestures and body movements. Even though scholars still disagree about definitions and the meaning of the messages we send nonverbally, now there is a large and growing body of research and theory about nonverbal communication.
What does such research mean to a preacher? At least it indicates that we cannot separate the message from the messenger. Our personality and attitudes may carry so much weight in the thinking of the audience that our words are overwhelmed. In this chapter we will survey the various kinds of nonverbal communication. Then we will look at how nonverbal signals relate to the words we use. Finally, we will outline some of the principles by which we can understand and improve nonverbal communication.
Your nonverbal communication includes your bodily movements, gestures, and facial expressions. Other nonverbal signals, called paralanguage, are related to the use of your voice, such as variety, rate, pitch, and tone of voice. A third set of nonverbal signals come from external factors such as your clothing and your use of space and time.
Bodily Movements
Kinesics is the study of bodily movements. The word comes from the Greek word kenesis, meaning motion or movement. These nonverbal channels include posture, gestures, and facial expressions. Your bodily movements will communicate to your audience your feelings and attitudes about your subject, about the audience, and about yourself. Some of these signals are obvious, and the hearer knows he is perceiving them. Others are subliminal, received by the audience at a subconscious level. The various levels of sophistication of your audience will determine how much they “read” of your body language.
Basic to body movement as such is body type and shape. You will inevitably be affected in your move-meets by how tall you are, your weight, physical conditioning, and health. Though it is a sensitive issue, physical condition, especially weight, will affect the attitude of your audience toward you before you say a word. An obviously overweight young preacher was told by his brother that he really had nothing to say about discipline and self-control. His own size destroyed his credibility. Considering how important these themes are to the Christian message, the young preacher recognized it would keep him from an effective ministry.
Even when your hearers do not actually think about your bodily movements and what they are saying, the signals are being received nonetheless. They may say, if only to themselves, That visiting preacher seemed a bit arrogant and uppity to me. Or they may think, I really like this man; he is so sincere and genuine. Research has demonstrated that those in an audience who cannot see the speaker clearly do not grasp his message as well as those who can. The process of seeing signals, interpreting their meaning, and formulating an appropriate response is continuous as long as a person can see you.
In the area of bodily movement, the preacher will be particularly concerned with platform movement, facial expressions, eye contact, and gestures.
Platform Movement. In the overall sense, your movement as you preach begins as you walk to the pulpit. Your posture will announce, something about your own self-image, about your attitude, about your energy and vitality. If you slouch and stroll, you may be telling the people you are rather laid back and casual, an easy-going person ready to have a little chat with them. If, on the other hand, you jump up and stride quickly and energetically to the pulpit, you will signal the audience that you are forceful, here on serious business, and eager to get on with the message.
Depending on the audience, there may be significant differences of opinion about the preacher’s movement on the platform as he preaches. In some churches the tradition is for the preacher to stay behind the pulpit and avoid unnecessary movement. In other churches there is no pulpit to use, and the preacher ordinarily moves about freely. Since body language is such an important part of the overall message, the best situation for communication would be to do without a pulpit altogether. In most cases, however, the preacher will be in a more traditional auditorium with a pulpit.
The problem with pulpits is not a new one. Henry Ward Beecher offered this rather vivid assessment more than a hundred years ago:
“You put a man in one of those barreled pulpits, where there is no responsibility laid upon him as to his body, and he falls into all manner of gawky attitudes, and rests himself like a country horse at a hitching post. He sags down, and has no consciousness of his awkwardness. But bring him out on a platform, and see how much more manly be becomes, how much more force comes out. The moment a man is brought face to face with other men, then does the influence of each act and react upon the other.”
Since you will usually speak from a pulpit, most of your body will be hidden from the audience. If you are short of stature, they may see little more than your head. If you are tall, you may tend to hunch over the pulpit as Beecher so vividly described. Either way the pulpit seems to be a barrier to good communication rather than a help.
Not only does local tradition and the physical arrangement of the platform suggest what movement is appropriate, but there is also a wide difference in what various preachers prefer. Platform movement is a reflection of a preacher’s style. His personality is expressed in the way he moves. There are, however, some guidelines for movement that will apply to all preachers.
My first suggestion to you about platform movement is to be aware of what your posture communicates. Poor posture, slumped shoulders, and a generally slouched look suggest that you are lazy, lacking in confidence, maybe even undisciplined. Posture is also important to your breathing and the effect that has on your speaking voice. Practice standing tall but not rigid. Consider whether your posture reflects the need for physical exercise and conditioning.
As you begin the sermon, establish “home base” at the pulpit or at the center of the platform. This is “center stage” in drama terms and is the strongest position on the platform. Once you have established this base at the pulpit, all platform movement will have the pulpit as its reference point. I have seen preachers begin their sermons away from the pulpit. This suggests to the audience that their comments are somewhat unofficial, that the sermon is not really starting yet. Beginning at the pulpit says that the sermon has begun and that the Word of God is being honored.
The long tradition behind the pulpit gives it a special place in the minds of believers. For those out of traditional church backgrounds, the pulpit represents the authority of God and His word. It is the official position for the Word of God to be declared. It is the “sacred desk” for such proclamation, and any other location is not quite as official or authoritative. This is why the removal of the pulpit from the platform usually stirs up a major controversy in a traditional church.
Once “home base” is established at the pulpit or platform center, any movement away from that position should be connected with a change in sermon material. Moving to the side of the pulpit suggests a more personal and intimate word is to be shared. You may want to move when you begin an illustration. You may also move to the side when you want to step closer to the audience and bring the biblical truth home with specific applications.
Very simply, platform movement should be purposeful. Avoid wandering around like a tiger pacing in a cage. This is an indication of restlessness or nervousness or may suggest a lack of experience preaching. I realize that some of us think better on our feet and think best when on the move. But remember that your movement is communicating something to your audience. Restless wandering can be a serious distraction that keeps your audience from concentrating on the message.
Gestures. In normal conversation we use our hands to augment our words. You have heard it said of an especially lively person that she cannot talk without her hands. Keeping her hands still is like wearing a gag. In everyday communication we do not think about these gestures. They are natural, unconscious, and spontaneous. A person who is animated in conversation may suddenly become aware of his hands when making a speech, not quite sure what to do with them. Then gestures may become unnatural and awkward.
Awkwardness in gestures can be a serious distraction to the audience. Steven and Susan Beebe have cataloged some of these awkward and unnatural gestures. Sometimes uneasy speakers will grasp the lectern until their knuckles turn white. They may let their hands just flop around with no apparent purpose. One hand on a hip is the “broken wing” pose, only made worse with both hands on hips in the “double broken wing.” A speaker may clutch one arm as though he has been grazed by a bullet. Hands in pockets may suggest relaxation in conversation but are usually not appropriate in preaching. Another unnatural gesture is to grasp one hand with the other and let them drop in front of you in a kind of “fig leaf clutch.”
In public speech gestures are to function the same way they do in conversation. A conversational style of public address is the most natural and effective for preaching. We use gestures to emphasize important points, to point out places, to enumerate items, and to describe objects. In our preaching gestures work the same way. They augment what we are saying, underline it, clarify it, dramatize it, even communicate without words at all.
When a large pulpit hides the preacher from view, his gestures will lie unnatural and awkward. Spurgeon gave a long and humorous complaint against pulpits as he lectured on gestures. Like Beecher, he saw them as a great hindrance to effective public speech, one no attorney in court would accept. “No barrister would ever enter a pulpit to plead a case at the bar,” he said. “How could he hope to succeed while buried alive almost up to his shoulders? The client would be ruined if the advocate were thus imprisoned.” So will a pulpit often “bury” you and hinder your gestures.
Gestures function in six ways in relation to your speech: (l) repeating, when gestures reinforce visually what you are saying, as in holding up three fingers while talking about three points; (2) contradictiong, when gestures are in conflict with what you say: (3) substituting, when your hands speak without a word being said; (4) complementing, when gestures add further meaning to what is said; (5) emphasizing, when gestures support what you are saying by giving it force; (6) regulating, when gestures are used to control your interaction with the audience.
When you see yourself on video-tape, you may notice that your gestures need to be improved. Keep these guidelines in mind. Effective gestures will be natural and relaxed. They will be definite and well timed rather than uncertain. Also, work to make your gestures appropriate to what you are saying and, at the same time, adapted to the audience. Try to use variety and avoid overusing certain movements. Also, avoid gestures that call attention to themselves. Your aim is to have the audience focus on your message and not on your gestures.
Spurgeon focused on the critical issue when he told his students, “It is not so much incumbent upon you to acquire right pulpit action as it is to get rid of that which is wrong.” Rather than practicing good gestures, try to eliminate distracting ones. Spurgeons pointed out that “little oddities and absurdities” in gestures will prejudice the minds of the general public and detract from the message. He said that posture and gestures are the dress of the sermon. Just as no one would wear shabby clothes if he could get finer ones, so should the preacher clothe his message in the best dress he can.
Facial Expressions. Whereas gestures can augment our words with support for the ideas we are communicating, facial expressions primarily communicate emotion. I have noticed that one of the most common criticisms mentioned in evaluating student preachers is that facial expression is weak, even “deadpan.” When a preacher is talking about a life-changing matter and yet his face is lifeless, which do you think the audience will believe? Will they think his message is urgent when his face communicates indifference?
Part of our problem as preachers is that our facial expressions are not what we think they are. From inside we feel that our faces are expressive and animated. But the audience cannot see it. Try this. Put on what you feel is a normal and sincere smile. Then hold that expression while you turn to look in the mirror. You may well find that what you think you are expressing never quite gets to your face. You may have to practice facial expressions in the mirror where you can see what the audience sees. With some effort you can make whatever adjustments are needed for your face to express what you intend.
Managing facial expressions is very difficult. That is one reason for the high level of credibility given to facial expressions. They are naturally much more spontaneous and truthful than other body language. Researchers have discovered that facial expressions tell others how we feel, while body orientation tells them how intensely we feel it. The message in facial expressions is not so much cognitive as emotional. They reinforce your message by revealing how you really feel about it.
It is difficult to mask what we really feel because our faces give us away. This brings us again to the difficulty of separating the message from the messenger in preaching. Your own feelings about the message you are delivering will so color the hearer’s perception of it that he will likely accept it or reject it based on your attitude toward it. As much as any other kind of nonverbal communication, your facial expressions signal those feelings and attitudes. If your facial expressions and tone of voice do not communicate that the message is important, it must not be.
Eye Contact. The channel of body language that has the most impact on the hearer is eye contact. It is the eyes that tell you whether another person has noticed you and what his intentions are toward you. Eye contact tells you at once that you are the object of attention. Eyes indicate a person’s mood more reliably than any other facial features. Eye signals are unselfconscious, genuine and hard to fake. We can tell from the eyes alone whether a person is pleased, wary, wistful or bored.
The primary function of eye contact is to establish and define relationships with others. Close friends and family members can communicate with little more than a glance. When fellowship is broken, one of the first indications is the lack of eye contact. Resentment toward an acquaintance will be almost instantly perceived by the change in eye contact. Though we are hardly conscious of what is going on, reliable messages are being sent and received. The preacher’s method of delivery should make allowance for maximum eye contact from the outset.
The preacher’s eye contact with his audience serves several important functions. It opens communication, establishes rapport, checks on audience reactions, makes you more believable, expresses emotion, and keeps our audience interested. Of all the nonverbal channels we are discussing, none of them is more important than eye contact.
First, eye contact opens communication. When you establish eye contact with a person, it is the equivalent of ringing her up on the phone. Eye contact other than a passing glance tells another that you are interested in talking. When the preacher comes to the pulpit and looks at his audience, he is opening that line of communication.
Eye contact in preaching, more than any other factor, establishes rapport with the audience, the compatibility and harmony that is necessary to persuasive speech. We trust people more when they look us in the eye. If there is a lack of eye contact, the audience feels they are not really in fellowship with the preacher. They tend to become restless and resistant to his message. Eye contact that reveals hostility is also quickly perceived by the audience and puts them in a defensive and resentful mode.
Eye contact allows the preacher to check on audience reactions to his sermon. The best method of gauging the attention and interest of the audience is by reading facial expression, particularly the eyes. If his hearers look at him intently, the preacher knows they are with him and following his thoughts with interest. If they begin to avert their eyes by looking down or to the side, he knows they are disengaging. They are disconnecting the communication link and moving away. These signals allow the preacher to adapt his sermon to audience interest.
Eye contact with your audience makes you believable. The credibility issue is very important to the preacher. Studies have documented the connection between eye contact and increased credibility. Unless you maintain at least 50 percent eye contact with your audience, they will likely consider you unfriendly, uninformed, inexperienced, and even dishonest.
Eye contact also serves to display emotion. Research has concluded that eye signals reveal emotion as much as any aspect of nonverbal communication. Some feel that the eyes alone reveal one’s inner feelings. For the most part, however, the eyes can be the focus of attention for understanding the mood of another, with the face as the backdrop and reinforcer for eye signals. Since the preacher’s attitude toward his subject and his audience are critical for getting his message across, it is vital that he maintain eye contact with his audience.
Eye contact helps to keep the audience’s interest. When a speaker fastens his eyes on his manuscript or notes, that diversion immediately takes its toll on audience interest. When you are looking at your hearers, they are more likely to pay attention to you because that is the normal pattern in conversation. They give you their attention because your eye contact indicates your interest in them. As they read your passion for your subject in your eyes, they will be motivated to take it seriously.
Remember that eye contact has different meanings in different cultures. In Japan, for instance, the direct eye contact of American communication is seen as intrusive and aggressive. Even in the United States, the preacher will want to avoid fastening his gaze on individuals for too long or concentrating his attention in one area of the auditorium. Avoid rhythmic sweeps of the eyes from one side to the other without really seeing anyone. It is best to look at all areas of the audience and make brief eye contact with as many individuals as possible.
Body language is not just a side issue in preaching. The preacher’s interest must go beyond the avoidance of distractions. Body language is a separate dialect, a broadcast band that can either reinforce your verbal message, neutralize it, or even negate it.
Nonverbal communication not only involves body language, but it also includes how you use your voice.
Signals with Your Voice
Voice problems can have any number of causes, from organic disorders to functional disorders. Our concern here, however, Is with the sound and use of the voice as it communicates nonverbally. This area of study is closely related to the physiology of vocal production and to communication style.
The nonverbal channels in the quality of your voice and articulation are called paralanguage. Like other aspects of nonverbal communication, the way you use your voice in speech is directly tied to your whole personality. Personality affects your voice, and voice improvement can affect your personality. Remember the difference speech training made for Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Raymond Ross quotes an expert in voice and diction training, “Bluntly speaking, one may have a dull, uninteresting, or unpleasant voice because his voice is defective or improperly used; but he may also have such a voice because he is a dull, uninteresting, or unpleasant person.”
verbal communication, the preacher’s personality and character will come out, whether he intends it or not. Voice quality and language use can suggest to an audience that the preacher is forceful or lethargic, educated or ignorant, confident or fearful, pessimistic or optimistic, sincere or deceitful. As much as any other factor, people use the sound of your voice and your pronunciation to assess your level of competence and intellectual ability.
Your voice is one of the most important factors affecting your image in the minds of others. The way they “see” you is constructed by what they hear. As soon as you begin to speak, your spoken image becomes dominant and overrides your visual image. When you talk, you are either reinforcing or destroying the message you are sending by gestures, facial expressions, clothing, posture and other non-verbal channels. I remember a number of occasions when an immaculately dressed, well-groomed handsome person would present an impressive image, until he opened his mouth with a nasal, grammatically incorrect, and “backwoods” way of speaking.
Simply enough, it is not only what you say but how you say it that is important. How you speak will be the major factor in whether people want to listen to you and take your ideas seriously. This may not seem fair, but it is nonetheless true. Though we can cite powerful, Spirit-filled preachers like D. L. Moody as exceptions to the rule, we are unwise to presume upon our audiences and the importance of our message by neglecting to take voice and diction seriously.
Important variables in your way of speaking include voice quality, speaking rate, volume, pitch, and melody. The key to effective use of these vocal qualities is variety. It is sameness and monotony in these areas that cause the hearer to lose interest. On the other hand, extremes in these areas can be out of place, even with variety. Other factors have to do with your use of language — articulation, pronunciation, and grammar. An audience is continually assessing these factors as to whether they sound like normal and acceptable speech.
Wayne McDill, The Moment of Truth. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999). All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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