Public Speaking and the Pulpit

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by John Ellis

At the beginning of my acting career, I was embarrassed to have Bob Jones University plastered on my resume. I was afraid that I would be labeled a Christian or, worse, a fundamentalist Christian at that. Needless to say, the world of theatre and the world of conservative Christianity are often at odds. But, being on the front end of my acting career, I didn’t really have the luxury of removing things from my already meager resume.

Several weeks into rehearsals for my first Shakespeare production, I cautiously asked the director why he had taken a risk on me. At the time of the audition, I was a complete unknown to the theatre and yet ended up with one of the largest roles in the play. Without missing a beat, the director replied, “Because you went to Bob Jones University.”

That was not the answer I was expecting[1]; confused, I pressed further. The director explained that at the audition, none of the actors had separated themselves in regards to the role he eventually cast me. He added that the deciding factor was that since I had attended Bob Jones University, he knew that I would be able to be heard and understood in the large theatre in which the play was being produced.

Eventually, I stopped being surprised when directors would comment positively on Bob Jones University’s theatre department’s ability to train actors to be heard and understood. I soon realized that I was often light years ahead of my peers when it came to projecting and articulating. I also quickly learned that whatever gaps I believed that I had regarding theatre theory mattered far less to casting directors than did the fact that I could be heard and understood.

While no longer an actor, my training at Bob Jones University as well as my over fifteen years of experience on stage is still proving valuable. At the moment, the Lord is allowing me the privilege of serving Him and serving my church family through corporate prayers, scripture readings, service leading, and even preaching occasionally. By God’s grace, several of the elderly saints in our church have commented about how well I can be heard and understood. Others in my church family have marveled at my seemingly complete lack of nervousness while in the pulpit or teaching Sunday School. As to the former, I praise God for the opportunities He gave me to learn how to use my voice for His service. As to the latter, I praise God that through years of training and experience, I have come to learn that nervousness before stepping in front of people is a gift and have learned to control my response to my nervousness.

For my own heart as well as for others, a word of caution is probably in order before proceeding with the meat and potatoes of this article – first and foremost, we serve God. When done in faithful obedience, God’s name is magnified through our service. Comparing ourselves to the abilities or gifts of others is counterproductive and may reveal pride. That doesn’t mean that we should take lightly the opportunity to publicly serve God by using our voice. And we should desire to honor God by doing the best of our ability. While a somewhat different context than this, I do believe that Paul’s admonishment to “work heartily, as for the Lord”[2] does hold some application for speaking in front of God’s people. Plus, when tasked with vocal communication in front of our church family, it’s important that we do the best we can to remove human barriers to that communication. Honoring God through vocal communication does not require one to reach the level of world-class orator, but it does require seeking to do the best we can when called to serve God in this manner.

Doing our best involves learning how to be effective communicators, on a minimal level, at the least. Communication tools like projecting and articulating should be interacted with, and we should desire to learn how to utilize those tools. Communicating truths about God is a far more important task than communicating the words of Shakespeare. And no actor with even a modicum of respect for the craft who has been tasked with telling the stories of Shakespeare would dare tread the boards without pursuing excellence in the form of communication. Our Holy God who delights in excellence deserves no less than Shakespeare.

Below, I’m going to list three basic things that I believe are fundamental aids to effective communication. The tools pretty much reside in the realm of technical; I’m not planning on interacting with sin issues that speakers in churches struggle with –  pride, allowing ourselves to succumb to the desire to entertain at the expense of the Word, and being lazy with our handling/exegesis of God’s Word. While purposely a technical post, I do believe, however, that it’s vital to remind myself and others that the two most important aspects to serving God in our local church are faith and prayer. The Letter to the Hebrews is clear that “without faith it is impossible to please [God].”[3] Apart from repenting of his sins and placing his faith in Jesus, the greatest communicator in the world doesn’t belong in the pulpit. Secondly, bathing our efforts in prayer is vital. And that applies to everything, not just our task of communicating from the pulpit. None of the tools listed below are replacements for prayer. In fact, we should bathe our interaction with the following tools in prayer.

Preparation

When actors are off in their line delivery – sounds wooden, strains credulity, et al. – , I can almost guarantee that the problem is that the actor doesn’t know why he is saying what he is saying. In other words, the actor doesn’t understand what the purpose of the line is. Every line in a play (good plays that get produced, that is) has a purpose, an objective. Knowing that purpose/objective is one of the actor’s most important tasks. Likewise, when standing in the pulpit, whether to pray, read the Bible, or preach, something is being communicated with each line, if not each word. Knowing what that is requires some effort.

If we wait until Sunday morning to glance over the Bible passage we’ve been asked to read, chances are that we will not effectively communicate the message of the verses. Take time throughout the week to go over your prayer, exegete the verses, or otherwise know what and why you are communicating. Don’t just know what you’re going to say; know why you’re saying it. If you don’t know why you’re saying it, it’s doubtful that those listening will know why either.

Another important aspect of preparation is practice. For example, if you are asked to serve by reading a passage from the Bible and the first time you read the passage in preparation is the brief free time between getting dressed for church and having to usher your family into the car, I humbly submit that you are not doing the best of your ability. In theater there is a rule that states every minute in performance on stage requires a minimum of an hour of rehearsal. While understanding that there are obvious differences, both in style and objective, the rule should cause many of us to hang our head in shame and then repent of our flippant attitude towards our service to God.

Projecting and Articulating

The great actor, director, and theatre theorist Constantin Stanislavski would spend up to two hours every morning doing breathing and vocal exercises. Whenever I would relate that fact to my acting students, I would always feel a little tinge of guilt over the fact that I was doing good to put an hour of breathing and vocal work in on the days that I was performing. I’m afraid that my commitment to the vocal instrument that God has given me is even less of a priority than it was when I was using my voice to serve myself.

Make no mistake, our physical breathing apparatus and articulators are instruments, and like all instruments, they work best when used properly. For the articulators to function (the vocal folds in the larynx, the tip of the tongue, the teeth, the lips, and the jaw[4], to name a few), air has to be provided. That’s where diaphragmatic breathing comes in.

The diaphragm is a muscle that looks a little like the top of a jellyfish[5] and that sits between the lungs and the abdomen. When inhaling, the diaphragm flattens down, pushing your stomach out. This opens the thoracic cavity and allows the lungs to fully fill with air. Exhaling, of course, reverses all of that; the abdomen contracts, the diaphragm unflattens, and the air is expelled from the lungs.

When explaining that process to students, especially younger students, I would often blow up a balloon. While doing so, I would loosely place my hand over the balloon. The balloon would expand, but it wouldn’t take long for my fingers to constrict around the balloon and keep it from expanding to its full potential. Next, as can probably be guessed, I would remove my hand and blow the balloon out to its full, stretched capacity. While not a perfect analogy, by any stretch of the imagination, the imagery does help provide a much sharper and helpful picture in the mind of those who are unfamiliar with diaphragmatic breathing. Similar to my hand around the balloon, shallow breathing doesn’t open up the thoracic cavity. When breathing diaphragmatically, not only does the abdomen distend, the rib cage expands. The lungs are allowed to fill with air to their full, stretched capacity. It cannot be stressed enough that diaphragmatic breathing is essential to both projecting and articulating. The question for many, of course, is how do I do breathe diaphragmatically?

Well, first, you need to make sure whether you’re breathing diaphragmatically or not. Sit up straight in a hard-backed chair. Grab the bottom of the chair with both hands, and then inhale deeply – very deeply, vocalize (make a noise) while inhaling. If your hands pull up on the bottom of the chair, you’re breathing incorrectly. Most people practice shallow breathing; their shoulders go up and down while breathing. This is what causes the hands to pull up on the bottom of the chair[6].

The second step requires you to lie flat on your back on the floor; not a bed or a couch, a hard surface works best. Place one hand on your abdomen. As before, inhale very deeply, vocalizing as you inhale. Exhale. Notice what happens.

Humans are born breathing correctly and over time we learn bad habits. Assuming normal physiology, humans breathe correctly while asleep. Lying on your back almost forces you to breath diaphragmatically. Granted, whenever I would do that exercise with kids, at least one kid would do everything in his power to prove me wrong. That kid lost all hope of ever becoming the teacher’s pet.

While a physical teacher is preferable when trying to learn how to breath diaphragmatically, there are some exercises that you can do on your own. The main value of a post like this one may be found in pointing the reader in the right direction and providing some motivation. A person really needs a physical teacher in order to master the tool of diaphragmatic breathing. I will offer this bit of advice, though – after doing the exercise above where you lie flat on your back, stand in front of a mirror with your hand on your abdomen and try and replicate the mechanics of breathing that you felt while lying on the floor.

Another exercise that is useful in helping you replicate the mechanics of breathing that you felt while lying on the floor involves placing your hands around your sides, just below the rib cage. Place your thumbs on your back and the fingers on the front (left hand – left side, right hand – right side). Gently squeeze your sides and then breathe in through your nose. Try and cause your hands to open up while inhaling, especially the thumb.

Those are just a few of the breathing exercises that will help you learn how to breath diaphragmatically. Breathing this way allows your whole body to be involved in the production of the sound, helping to create a rich, vibrant, and warm tone. That, of course, also requires articulation.

In short, when speaking, open your mouth wide (wider than you think you should), loosen your jaw, and annunciate. Annunciating means to form the words with your mouth – get you lips out of the way, and use your tongue and your teeth. It will feel weird at first, at second, and probably for the foreseeable future. Eventually, if you work at it, it will no longer feel weird to annunciate. One good, simple exercise to help you learn how to annunciate is to practice tongue twisters.

Mastering tongue twisters requires forming the words with your mouth and articulating each sound, both vowels and consonants. By “mastering tongue twisters,” I don’t mean quickly garbling the words out with just enough annunciation to be understood by those listening. I mean making sure that every vowel and every consonant is identifiable to the listener while you quickly recite the tongue twister five times. There are many websites and books that provide a myriad of tongue twisters[7], but one that I frequently use in vocal warm-ups (more that in a bit) is short, simple, yet effective – Red Leather, Yellow Leather.

Like breathing exercises, there are many vocal exercises that can be utilized. Working with a teacher or coach is preferable, but the motivated individual can begin to learn how to breath correctly and annunciate in order to provide a rich sound that can be heard in the back of the room, regardless of the size of the room. One almost “well, duh” exercise is putting diaphragmatic breathing together with articulating. Standing and reading long passages is a great way to do this. One such passage that is beneficial is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” The great voice and diction teacher Cicely Berry explains, “[‘The Ode to the West Wind’] is marvelous because it has tremendous breadth of sound and really long phrases. It should not be hurried as you will hear that its weight lies in the quantity of sound in each word … This poem is excellent for stretching the breathing and for finding a gradual mounting drive and strength without losing particularness and keeping quite free.”[8] (the text of the poem can be found here)

As the anecdote about Stanislavski reveals, the ability to project and articulate requires continuous work/exercise. Some of the exercises are as generic as the stretches that your middle school P.E. teacher made you do before class. Muscle relaxation is important to the task of projecting and articulating, and stretching aids in relaxation. Other exercises are more specific and focus on the articulators.

One such specific exercise focuses on stretching the muscles in your face; open your mouth and eyes as wide as possible, and then squeeze them shut as tight as possible. A similar exercise aks you to use your fingers to massage the muscles in your face while aggressively and vocally chewing imaginary gum. A relaxed jaw is very important; to help relax your jaw by quickly repeating “babababababa,” allowing the jaw to simply fall open; don’t force the mouth to open, let the jaw fall open. Those three “articulator” stretches and physically stretching, in general, also have another yet related purpose.

Embrace Your Nervousness

The great actor Sir Laurence Olivier suffered from severe stage fright. In fact, there was a period in his life when he thought his stage fright would end his career. Almost every actor that I know, including myself, felt butterflies before stepping onto the stage. Many of the actors that I knew, including myself, were worried on the nights that we didn’t feel the butterflies.

Wanting to feel the butterflies in the stomach, be nervous, or have stage fright sounds counterintuitive to most. Whenever I would tell my acting students that having butterflies in their stomach prior to performing was a good thing, their initial response was generally a bemused skepticism. Most people take that feeling as a sign that they probably shouldn’t be doing what they are about to be doing. But most people don’t understand what causes the feeling, much less how to deal with it.

Feeling butterflies in the stomach is a product of less blood flow to the abdomen, which is precipitated by the release of adrenaline into the blood stream. The so-called “fight or flight” response causes more blood to be sent to the muscles, hence, less blood to the abdomen. In other words, as I would tell my students, that feeling means that you’re ready, that you’ll have the requisite energy to do a good job on stage. That, of course, doesn’t solve the problem of the uncomfortable feeling in the stomach.

While not a magic formula for completely erasing the uncomfortable feeling called “butterflies in the stomach,” there are some things that you can do that will help lessen the feeling. As stated above, part of the problem is lessened blood flow to the stomach. Lowering the heart rate and increasing blood circulation throughout the body will help. Thankfully, while doing your exercises to warm up your articulators, the solution is already in place.

Breathing exercises, physically stretching, relaxation exercises, and vocal warmups all play a part in helping minimize the feeling of butterflies in the stomach. One important caveat, though – if it happens, a sudden release of adrenaline before stepping into the pulpit cannot be avoided. Nor should you really want to avoid it, I believe.

The adrenaline released into your body is a good gift from God that provides part of the energy necessary for effective communication. With it comes some obstacles, yes. But those obstacles can be overcome. First, by warming up properly before engaging in the communication work that God has asked of you. Secondly, realize what the feeling of butterflies actually is, praise God for it, and then don’t allow that feeling to dictate your actions in the pulpit. In a word, or two words – slow down. Take a breath before you begin speaking. Take two breaths if need be. For that matter, take three if you must. But, slow down.

By “slow down,” I don’t necessarily mean to speak slower, although that may be necessary[9]. By “slow down,” I mean take your time. Don’t be afraid to pause. Don’t be afraid to collect your thoughts and take a breath before opening your mouth. Above all, don’t allow the adrenaline that God has given you to use you; use the adrenaline. To do that, you must first want the adrenaline, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make you feel.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate the importance of prayer. The temptation to rely on your own strength will only increase as you become more comfortable in the pulpit. It’s far better to stutter, sputter, and stumble through with humility and the desire to make God’s name great than it is to deliver a perfectly polished prayer, scripture reading, or sermon in pride and with the desire to make your name great. However, sometimes pride can be also be manifest in the refusal to pursue excellence. If God has placed your hands on the plow of speaking from the pulpit, seek to honor Him by doing the best you can and not taking the privilege for granted.

Soli Deo Gloria


[1] Nor was it the answer that I was wanting. I was hoping to hear something like, “John, your brilliance as an actor was apparent from the moment you began your audition.”

[2] Colossians 3:23, ESV Study Bible (Wheaton:IL, Crossway, 2008), 2299.

[3] Hebrews 11:6, ESV Study Bible, 2380.

[4] This is somewhat of an oversimplification – for example, the pharynx is important, too. But I don’t want to get too technical. Most people have no idea what the pharynx’s role in speech is – it’s a resonating organ.  For a list of the articulators and a very brief description, click here.

[5] Or a really flimsy mushroom.

[6] Unless you’re really tall with long arms.

[7] People struggle with different sounds. Each tongue twister provides a roadblock based on specific sounds. Some tongues twisters will be easy for you that are hard for others, and vice versa. Find the ones that are difficult for you and practice those.

[8] Cicely Berry, Voice and the Actor (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 80.

[9] Side note (which, I guess, is why it’s in a footnote), I can tell when people don’t really know how to give constructive critiques regarding public speaking. The note to “speak slower” is usually a sure-fire signal that the person wants to say something, but doesn’t know what else to say. People can listen a lot faster than they can read. It’s rare that a speaker is speaking too fast for an audience. A speaker may be speaking too fast for their own sake, but that’s a separate issue.

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