Don’t Ruin Good Content: Proficient Pulpit Rhetoric

By Jonathan Nason    |    December 18, 2023

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Brian Connolly, writing nearly sixty years ago from Dublin, said, “It is a staggering thought that the love of God who longs to give Himself to people can be hindered because we may fail as communicators.”1 In context, Connolly was not making a soteriological claim about God’s dependency on the quality of preaching for saving grace (1 Cor. 1:17–2:4) but was simply expressing the importance of the preacher being the best communicator possible.2 He argues that preachers must be “audible, intelligible, convincing speakers, speaking live, interesting truths to real people, in a way which shows that we have first expressed the ideas to ourselves and then translated them into language and comparisons which bring them vividly to people.”3

As preachers, are we proficient public speakers? If not, why not? Is not our message important enough to be great public speakers? Although we must not be performers, we must be proficient rhetoricians. This article focuses on just one aspect of being a good rhetorician—good vocal delivery.

There are numerous frameworks to evaluate one’s vocal delivery, but I have found this one to be simple yet detailed enough to be memorable and useful. The six Ps for proficient vocal delivery—pitch, pace, punch, pause, progress, and projection—will help you focus on specific areas to fine-tune your pulpit rhetoric. I am indebted to Scott Gibson for instilling this framework in my head and for pushing me to be the best preacher possible.

Pitch

Pitch is the vocal range one employs. This is synonymous with tone. Good pitch is varying tones throughout a speech act. The opposite of good pitch is monotone, to which no one wants to listen. Monotone preaching is boring and is like a white noise sound machine that puts my kids to sleep. It is a constant noise that enchants the mind to relax and go to sleep. Monotone preaching produces the same result: sleepy hearers.

Good pitch in a sermon is a varying vocal range that entices the ears. A good pitch is like a ship on the gentle sway of waves up and down on the ocean. Too much pitch is like a storm that tosses the ship around. Too little pitch is like water with no movement and life. In some moments, you raise your pitch for emphasis, and in some moments, you lower your pitch to focus attention but be sure to vary your pitch throughout the sermon.

Pace

Pace is the speed at which you are talking. Due to excitement, nervousness, and passion, many preachers speak much too fast, but it is also possible to speak too slowly. Talking too fast can make it difficult for a listener to process and absorb your words. Talking too slowly can cause a listener to leave you behind to wander off to other distractions. Spurgeon said, “To speak too slowly is miserable work. . . . It is impossible to hear a man who crawls along at a mile an hour.”4

What is a good pace? Somewhere between 140–160 words per minute is the suggested pace for public speech.5 Professional podcasters, for example, aim for 150-160 words per minute.6 Similar to pitch, a varied pace is ideal. You can use pace to direct people to what you are saying. For example, if you really want them to pay attention to something you are emphasizing, you can slow down to draw them in. Similarly, you can speed up to show importance and excitement. Intentional pacing is an important aspect of proficient pulpit rhetoric.

Punch

Punch is the use of voice and language to communicate with force. Punch is employed when emphasizing an important truth being revealed. Maybe you just completed a vivid illustration. You can drive that truth home by preaching with punch. You assert the truth emphatically and with conviction. Good punch is like the moment in A Few Good Men when Tom Cruise gets Jack Nicholson to yell out, “You can’t handle the truth!” It was an emphatic moment of speech that would have been anti-climactic if it was spoken the same way you might whisper “good night” to your kids. It would have lost its punch.7

Pause

Pause is the use of non-speech in communication. A pause can be used to slow down your pace, to allow a truth to be absorbed by your listeners, or for emphasis and tension. I once heard a sermon where the preacher wanted to emphasize his first words, so he walked on stage and stood silent for almost 3 minutes. Everyone sat there watching him with great anticipation. Although I don’t recommend this long of a pause, it was effective.

Pausing while speaking can be a powerful tool. For example, God employs a 400-year inner canonical pause before Christ. This pause created anticipation for his next word, the Word, Jesus Christ. He paused in his revelation to prepare for the revelation of Jesus incarnate. That was an effective use of pause in his revelatory speech.

How you communicate the message is not as important as the message, but it is still important.”

—Jonathan Nason

During a single sermon, you will pause dozens of times. How long should those pauses be? Joel Gregory says, “a pause that feels too long to the preacher is probably just right for the hearers.”8 Judging proper pause in speech is difficult at first, but as you rewatch your sermons, you can evaluate the sufficiency of your pauses and then adjust accordingly in your next sermon.

Progress

Every sermon should take your hearers on a journey from start to finish. Progress is the forward motion towards that purposed end. Good progress is when a preacher leads his audience toward that destination with every spoken word. Your sermon should not be like a ship in a storm being tossed all over the sea, never in a straight line. Instead, your sermon should set sail on a clear path, and your words are the calm sea that transports the audience to its destination. Do your words paint a clear path for intellectual and emotional progress from start to finish? Or do your words feel more like a ship that has lost its way, wandering in various directions? Preach in a way that progresses people to the purposed end of your sermon.

Projection

Projection is speaking from deep within your diaphragm and not just your vocal cords. You can reach a high volume by yelling with your vocal cords, but projection is vocal power that comes from breath originating in the lungs. Yelling will make your vocal cords sore. Projection preserves your vocal cords by using powerful breath to push your voice forward.9 Spurgeon said, “It is hateful to hear a big fellow mutter and whisper when his lungs are quite strong enough for the loudest speech; but at the same time, let a man shout ever so lustily, he will not be well heard unless he learns to push his words forward with due space between.”10

Evaluating projection while rewatching your sermon is difficult to do. It is best to practice good breathing and voice projection and then employ that skill while preaching. Inevitably, this will help your projection. Singers can teach you how to speak from the diaphragm. Ask a skilled singer for exercises that might help.

How to Improve

Here are two recommendations that will help you improve your vocal delivery: 1) evaluated experience and 2) off-stage practice. John Maxwell says, “Experience is not the best teacher; evaluated experience is the best teacher. Reflective thinking is needed to turn experience into insight.”11 Evaluating your preaching after every sermon by listening to the audio recording or watching the video will refine your preaching. If you don’t currently record your sermons, start by using your phone. Then, review your sermon and evaluate yourself in each of the above categories. Where could you have varied your pitch and pacing? Was there an important moment in your sermon where you could have added more punch? Could you have paused a little longer somewhere? Did your sermon progress clearly and smoothly?

After evaluating areas of potential improvement, pick one thing to focus on for your next sermon. Joel Gregory, calls this the “one swing idea.” As a golfer, if you think too much about mechanics while swinging, you will hurt your swing. Instead, work on one thing at a time to improve your golf swing. Likewise, preachers who try to fix too much at a time could do more harm than good. Focus on “one preaching idea” each time you enter the pulpit.

In addition to evaluated experience, you can practice your communication off-stage. What I mean by off-stage is any non-sermonic act of communication. A good communicator off-stage (not during a sermon) is more likely to be a good communicator on-stage (during a sermon). A specific exercise that directly relates to a sermonic event is to practice telling a story or persuading an audience about anything. Get in front of a group and tell them a true story from your life that you are passionate about. Naturally, your rhetoric will be more engaging when the story is real to you and you care about it. You will have varied pitch and pacing, emphatic punches and pauses, and climatic progression. Practice your vocal delivery off-stage in everyday communication.12

Valuable – Handle with Care

When shipping something valuable, much care is given to proper packaging and delivery. Likewise, because your message is of eternal value, you pay attention to proper delivery. How you communicate the message is not as important as the message, but it is still important. Therefore, take great care to become a proficient communicator of God’s Word and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  1. Brian Connolly, “Preaching: Problems of Communication,” The Furrow 17, no. 2 (1966): 81–91.
  2. Even if he was making a soteriological claim, we could disagree with his soteriology and heed his point on the importance of good communication.
  3. Connolly, “Preaching: Problems of Communication,” 91.
  4. Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, Vol. 1 (http://www.onthewing.org/user/Spur_Lectures1.pdf), 91.
  5. Lynda Stucky, “What is the Ideal Rate of Speech?” https://clearly-speaking.com/what-is-the-ideal-rate-of-speech/. This article offers recordings at various paces to get a sense for what 140–160 words per minute is like.
  6. https://speakerhubhq.medium.com/your-speech-pace-guide-to-speeding-and-slowing-down-be150dcb9cd7#:~:text=Conversational%3A%20between%20120%20wpm%20and,between%20250%20to%20400%20wpm.
  7. Punch is not the same thing as yelling like a bully in the pulpit. This is not an angry preaching ethos. This simply means you stand firm on the truth and present it emphatically.
  8. Joel C. Gregory, personal notes from class discussion.
  9. https://www.theatrefolk.com/blog/projecting-your-voice-without-yelling/#
  10. Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, Vol. 1 (http://www.onthewing.org/user/Spur_Lectures1.pdf), 91.
  11. https://www.johnmaxwell.com/blog/borrowing-experience/
  12. If you teach preaching, have your students give a 5-minute “sermon” about a personal, real-life event. Give them a few minutes to prepare and then send them up there. They will be surprised how good their rhetoric skills are when they are familiar with the content and relaxed. This will give them an idea of how to convert everyday speaking into the pulpit.
Jonathan Nason

Jonathan Nason is pastor of New Hope Church in Queens, N.Y.

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