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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Preach Like TED?

One of my homiletics professors at Vanderbilt, David Buttrick, once remarked that when Johnny Carson's Tonight Show was popular, preachers all around the country attempted to imitate his style -- namely, standing, not behind the pulpit, but rather in front of the congregation, delivering their homilies from memory (i.e., without notes). As Buttrick noted, however, what many of these preachers didn't realize was that Carson's opening monologue didn't occur without notes; instead, they were written on cue cards strategically placed across the stage out such that they were out of sight of the live and television audience. Unsurprisingly, most ministers failed in their attempt to imitate Carson's success because they didn't have access to their notes as Carson did. Consequently, their sermons wandered and lacked coherence. Those who succeeded generally did so because they spent numerous hours memorizing and rehearsing their sermons. To be sure, there are a gifted few who are quite good at speaking extemporaneously, but most can't, which, of course, is Buttrick's larger point: namely, most ministers shouldn't stray too far from the pulpit or their notes.

The Tonight Show is still with us, of course, but its novelty has worn off, so my sense is that "TED talks" may exert more of an impact on contemporary preaching than do Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and Conan O'Brien (not to mention John Oliver). For those unfamiliar with TED, which stand for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, TED is a global set of conferences run by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation. It was founded in February 1984 as a single event but annual conference began in 1990. TED's early emphasis was technology and design, but it has since broadened its focus to include talks on many scientific, cultural, and academic topics.

TED talks, which are limited to 18 minutes in length, can be quite engaging. In fact, I often show them in my classes. Thus, it shouldn't be surprising that some communication gurus have analyzed TED talks in order to tease out what makes them so popular. For example, Carmine Gallo examined the several of the most popular TED talks and identified nine "secrets" for being a successful public speaker, which are summarized in his book, Talk Like TED. I found many of these quite insightful, and I plan to incorporate some into my weekly lectures. However, as Gallo notes, successful TED presenters typically practice their talks 100 to 200 times before they step on to the TED stage, and most preachers simply cannot afford to rehearse their sermons that often, at least not if they take tasks such as pastoral care and church administration seriously. Thus, while contemporary preachers can learn a lot from watching TED talks (and from reading books such as Talk Like TED), they should also realize that most weeks they won't be able to "Preach Like TED."

1 comment:

  1. Did you see Rachel Maddow this week when her prompter went dark? For someone who normally talks so fast, to see her in a panic, saying "Um" every other sentence made me feel better about my own public speaking efforts. I generally don't practice, because I think it takes the sparkle out of a presentation. 100 - 200 times??? I'd bore myself to death! Knowing the subject well, and having a giant outline always helped me. But I love TED talks :)

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