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Friday, April 29, 2011

Singing, Acting and Preaching

© U.P.images -
In my life I've been a singer, an actor and a preacher. The three disciplines have a lot in common. Sure, you're up on the stage in front of people for all three, but beyond that, there's still more that's common between them.

Singing requires practice, focus, emotion and control. Unless you're one of the rare people who can pick up a new song and sing it immediately, you need to spend time practicing so that it will come out sounding right. You also need to focus. If you're singing with a group or with instruments you need to sound good with everyone else, not just on your own. You need to blend with the other sounds, tune to the other pitches and focus on how it all works together. Great singers make us believe what they're singing by showing emotion. They draw us into the song with the way they perform and evoke emotions in us. Finally, singing takes control. You need to be able to change the volume, pitch or intensity instantly. You can't just cut loose and belt it all out, you need to keep your voice tightly controlled when singing loudly or softly.

Acting takes many of the same skills and preparation, but one thing that I learned from acting is that you need to make everything you do bigger than life. The stage is small and far away from the audience. For them to see what you're feeling you need to make the expressions on your face big. Bigger than you would in a personal conversation. It's uncomfortable and weird to stretch your face so large in a smile or a frown, but it communicates to the back row. Also good actors have great diction. They enunciate clearly, but not so much that it's awkward. They don't leave off letters or sounds that the audience needs to hear to know what's going on. A good actor doesn't need a microphone to be heard, clearly. It's not just shouting, but speaking with force and precision.

So all of this has been mixed into my preaching style. I practice my sermon several times before I give it. I don't just sit and read through the sermon, I stand up in the auditorium and preach it to the empty room. I do this at least twice before every sermon. My preaching needs to blend with the rest of what's happening on Sunday. I can't overpower or contradict the singing, praying or audience. I need to show my emotions as I preach. I may be familiar with the subject matter, but the audience isn't I need to show on my face how I reacted the first time I heard the message I'm preaching.

What has helped you to be better at the art of preaching?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The State of Presenting with Nancy Duarte

In this brief, compelling interview, Nancy Duarte shares some of her thoughts about the state of presenting today. She's one of the leading experts in the art of presenting well.

First the bad news: presenting skills are terrible. They are dry, boring and ignorable. The same goes for preaching. Many sermons are presented like research papers rather than compelling stories and the audiences are checking out.

The good news is that today, more than any other time, we have the tools to get better. Experts who are sharing what they know about how to present well can make the overall level of presentations and sermons better than they have been.

What do you think is the state of preaching?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Fotolia © juanjo tugores
A couple weeks ago I was invited to review the stock photo site Fotolia. I was given a limited subscription to use trying out the service. You can see some of the images that I've used on this blog by clicking here. The value of the subscription given to me is approximately $40 per month.

The quality of the images is phenomenal. Each shot is thoroughly professional. Many of the images have a plain white or black background making them ideal for inserting into a presentation. There are many images that have already been edited (like the one appearing to the right for example) to produce some nice effects. I bet you can't guess why I liked this one.

The number of images available is huge. I haven't run out in the short time that I've been searching through the database. It's obvious that the main focus for Fotolia is the business sector. You'll find the majority of the images are people in business suits or other business-type images. It's not bad, but if you want something else you may need to dig a bit deeper to find the right fit.

There is a good selection of religiously themed images available as well as images that appropriate for illustrating Biblical passages. I found the image to the left when searching for images to go with Psalm 23.

I found that searching was tolerable. The images are labeled with tags which then give you keywords to search with the ever-present search box. That's fine and par for the course, but the keywords are applied liberally to pictures so you might get some odd results when searching. One trick I found was to use some search modifiers. So I could search for "happy" but that might bring up to many babies for what I'm wanting so I would add "-babies" to the end then re-search. Using the minus sign and words I wanted to exclude helped. However they don't support wildcards (* and ?) so you will have to exclude each keyword specifically (e.g. "-babies" "-baby").

I'm including this as a separate section from searching since finding the right picture will always require looking at them. Fotolia has a nice feature that allows you to see a thumbnail for the images but then if you hover your mouse over the image for a moment a larger preview will pop up. You can scan to see the pictures that you like then pause on them to get a better view. It makes browsing through lots of pictures much easier. One glitch in this feature shows up in the Google Chrome web browser. If the pop-up goes off the edge of the web browser area to the right then a side-to-side scroll bar will appear at the bottom, but then it doesn't go away when you move on. It doesn't interfere with future previews, but the thumbnails under the scroll bar are obscured. Annoying but not a deal-breaker.

Grabbing the images is a multi-step process. First click the image, then click the download link. If you're not using a subscription you will choose the size of the image here. Then check-out from the next page before you're ready to click the download link to get your photo. I understand the need for all the steps since they serve both subscribers and ala carte customers, but when downloading multiple images the process feels a little clumsy and protracted. Again, a mild annoyance, but nothing the keep you away from the service.

Subscription plans start at $199 a month for one user to download up to 25 images a day. That's not bad if you're grabbing tons of photos. But if you just need one or two images it might be a better deal to buy them one at a time. You can buy the images for as little a $0.75 apiece. That size would be OK for a blog post, but wouldn't be great for a PowerPoint presentation. Grab something in the $3.75 to $7.50 range for projecting. The sizes are labeled with the size in XS - extra small through XXL - double-extra large. Don't drop below a medium (M) for PowerPoint.

Fotolia provides a huge amount of images, videos and illustrations. It may take a while to find them based on the tagging and searching, but when you do find them they will be extremely high quality. To my eye, some of the images were a bit too staged looking. I was looking for a gritty image of a firefighter with dirt and ash on his sweaty face. It wasn't to be found. I had to settle for something a bit less personal, but still very good.

I used the images from Fotolia to put together this presentation, which I could not have done without the excellent images they provided. I would recommend Fotolia as a place to go when you need the perfect image to make your point. It may not be a daily driver for most preachers due to the cost, however.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Science of Belief and Unbelief

Fotolia© Jeff Metzger
Over at Mother Jones, Chris Mooney writes The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science. What do you do when scientific evidence contradicts what you already believe?

Imagine walking into work with the crowning achievement of your career under your arm. You are nearly trembling with excitement to share what you've been working on all night. Then the moment arrives and you get to share what you've discovered. You tell your bosses that the world is, in fact, round.

You're met with blank stares and a barely audible grunt. One of them asks how you got to this preposterous notion and you begin to describe your reasoning. Before long you've been shouted down and called a heretic. Not quite the day you were imagining. Something similar to this happens all the time. Evidence is ignored, skewed and reinterpreted based on the emotional bias of the people who hear it.

In the article, Mooney says: "Given the power of our prior beliefs to skew how we respond to new information, one thing is becoming clear: If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn't trigger a defensive, emotional reaction."

If we're trying to lead people into a new way of thinking - a new way of believing. We can't start with contradicting what they've always thought. That's the road to increased resistance and intransigence. However, if we work to see the world from the perspective of the people we're trying to convince then we can present new information within the framework that they will expect. We are subversive. This is the way of Jesus with his parables. The way of the prophet Nathan before David. This is the way of powerful preachers.

How do you work to change minds?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Line Up with Your People

© Accessony -
If you've been reading my blog for any amount of time now, you know that I enjoy Seth Godin. Today he talks about the phenomenon of Alignment:

A perfect relationship: I want your company to help me, and your company wants to help me. We're both focused on helping the same person.
The Apple relationship: I want Apple to be cool. Apple wants to be cool. That's why there's little pushback on pricing or obsolence or disappointing developers.

How does this work in speaking? If you provide alignment between what you're trying to say and what you audience wants to hear then the relationship will be long and productive. But if you're constantly fighting against what your audience wants to hear then things won't last very long.

Compare these to the ultimately doomed relationships (if not doomed, then tense) in which goals don't align, relationships where the brand took advantage of an opening but then grows out of the initial deal and wants to change it:
The hip designer relationship: I want the new thing no one else has yet. You want to be around for years.

What are you trying to say to your audience? Are they complicit in the process or are you fighting against them at every step? Who needs to change in this relationship?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Give Up, Surrender, Die

by Ambrozjo
Surrender is a bad word to Americans. We who were raised up with stories of the American Revolution and the Alamo consider fighting at any odds to be a noble calling. This ethic is instilled in children throughout school and sports. "Quitters never win and winners never quit."

But what if giving up is the best choice? What if we give up our security and we become vulnerable to each other? What if we surrender our desires for the good of other people? What if we take the message of Jesus seriously and we die to ourselves?

It's not the American way. But is it a better way?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Be Vulnerable

A friend recommended this amazing TED talk by Brene Brown. She shares her journey of learning the importance of vulnerability. The point is that we all crave connection but fear shame. Vulnerability is the path to both. We can't have the beauty of connection, joy, hope and community without the risk and experience of rejection, sorrow, loss and loneliness.

Brene describes this process from the perspective of where we need to be for personal happiness. We need to learn to embrace vulnerability, with the risk of pain, so that we can fully experience joy. I'll take it further: we need to learn to model vulnerability so that we can invite others to share the experience. And we need to create space that encourages vulnerability so that people can feel safe enough to take the risk.

How does your church prevent vulnerability? How could you encourage it? Model it?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Emotionally Drained Ministry

© Jose Manuel Gelpi -
Yesterday was a long day. A lot happened that took thought and energy from my, but in the end it was gathering with a dozen of my choir-mates and singing around the bed of a dying woman. She has early-onset Alzheimer's. She's 57. And she's going to die any day now. Her daughter and son have been caring for her in their home as best they can for several years now. He asked if we would come over after choir practice to sing some songs to her. It was beautiful and emotionally draining all at the same time.

Ministry with people is going to be emotional. You need to stay tender and compassionate. You need to "weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn." But then you find yourself like I find myself now. Waking up for the next day of work and life just drained. Emotionally exhausted. How does ministry happen from this place?

One thing I think we need to get over is the idea that the paid staff have to do so much more than anyone else. Staff have more time to devote to ministry, but also more hazards. If you were a cook and cut your finger you'd take a day or two off to heal up before heading back to the kitchen. If your heart has been cut out, take some time off to heal. Don't try to be tough and work through it. It might happen the first time or even the fifth time, but eventually you'll crack and crumble. Take care of yourself.

We also need to get over the thought that church stuff needs to always be happy and fun. The majority of Christian music and preaching is all about how happy we are as Christians and how God will take us to heaven where we'll be happy. What about when we're not? What about when we're mourning, raging, doubting? Those emotions are all expressed, by God's people, to God. The Psalms are full of this kind of emotional variety. Minister from where you are and you can be sure that others are in the same place.

How do you deal with the emotional drains of ministry?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Even Microsoft Gets It

Over at Microsoft's very own PowerPoint blog they point out that wrapping words around an image is just a bad idea. Avoid it, they say. Use a document creator tool, they say. Keep PowerPoint simple, they say.

That's what everyone else has been saying all along. Get rid of the bullet points and the text and focus on communicating visually through the powerful medium that PowerPoint provides. An image with just a few words is all it takes to convey a powerful message.

I know that PowerPoint automatically generates bullet points when you start typing text into the pre-selected text field. I'm sorry. Don't use it. Don't give in. Each slide should, as a general rule, be one, large picture with no more than six words.

The example here is from a recent presentation that I completed. Notice that it says a lot with very few words. I let the image do most of the communication and the words just give a framework for the image to put it into some sort of context.

Even Microsoft understands that PowerPoint should be used more like this and less like this:

Monday, April 18, 2011

Charts and Graphs are Necessary

Where would we be without the wisdom of Stephen Colbert? He helps us understand why charts and graphs are essential to every good speech.

The power of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech wouldn't have been as great without his Venn diagram.

Franklin Roosevelt inspired a nation by showing, in bar graph form, the challenges facing the nation.

Thank you Stephen, for setting us straight.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Visualize Doubt

© sframe -
Doubts aren't the exception for life, they're the rule. If I'm honest with myself I doubt things all the time. I doubt whether my car will start in the morning. I doubt whether I will have enough money to pay my bills. I doubt the Theory of Relativity. I have moments when I doubt the existence of God. In truth I doubt pretty much everything that I don't both fully understand and fully control. The irony is that I'm sure that things that I understand and can control will happen the way I expect and they never do. Even what I'm sure about is open to doubt.

Stan Granberg had a great blog post on the Kairos Church Planting site entitled Preaching in Unbelief.

I propose the best way is to preach the gospel in the context of unbelief. Find your point of unbelief in the text. Hone it to a state of mental "scary sharp," then let God take you to his point of resolution from the text. There it is, the core of your sermon. Now wrap that core with a layer of street made reality and you have a sermon that will grip anybody. Probably even yourself.

It's precisely the point where we stop understanding where we can begin to grow. If we persist in speaking from a position of power, where we have everything figured out and tightly controlled, then we leave no space. Not understanding is frightening. Doubt is exhausting. The typical human response is to avoid, ignore and numb. God calls the leaders in his church to be the first into the breach. We lead the terrifying charge into the face of unbelief so that others can journey with us.

Let your doubt show through as you preach and you'll connect in a much deeper way.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Vision and Creativity

Vision Green Road Sign Over Clouds
© Andy Dean
When speaking visually you need to be able to put yourself in the place of your audience. Experience your message the way that they would experience your message. Listen with fresh ears. See the connections that they will see.

This might be one of the most difficult things to do in speaking since we have the knowledge. We know what's going on. To look at things anew requires forgetting everything we've spent so much time learning to prepare.

In  Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die the Heath brothers talk about the "Curse of Knowledge" which makes it impossible for you to approach a topic from the perspective of a beginner. The curse takes effect when you don't allow your audience to learn along with you. They can't envision what you're saying without all the knowledge that you already have. So when you talk over their heads, they just give up and tune out.

Practice the creativity of joining your audience on the journey of discovery. Learn to experience your vision new each time so that they can follow along with you.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Get Lost

© The Blowfish Inc -
Imagination is a powerful tool. You can get lost in your own imagination. Daydreaming, doodling and pondering; we all have moments where our imagination runs away with us. When you're speaking to people though, you need to find those places where imagination and message coincide.

Instead of describing every detail of a scene for your audience, give them license to imagine the setting. Paint a picture with broad strokes then invite them to step inside with you.

"Paul and Silas were sitting in chains. The prison's bars kept them in but did little to shield them from the elements. The weather beat against them all day and into the night."

So were they hot or cold? Dry or wet? What does your imagination tell you? This is just a simple example of allowing space for imagination. But if we invite people to get lost with us then their minds will connect even more with what we're saying.

When using images, start a story. Don't finish everything, but show the beginning of action or movement. Let people imagine what happens next. If the photo is closely connected to your topic then the imagination will reinforce. But if the image is too tangential then it will distract.

What do you imagine from the picture with this blog? How have you engaged people's imaginations?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fail Well

Failing might be a meme on the internet, but it's also important to being a success in life. Seth Godin points out that failure avoidance is actually working against yourself. If you plan to not fail you are planning to not succeed. For without failure and the subsequent lessons learned, we can't achieve any measure of success.

How can you plan to fail well in your public speaking? First, start by doing risky things. Speak a form that you aren't used to. Practice story telling or joke telling. Speak from a script if you typically use an outline. Use an outline or even no notes. Act out a dramatic scene or talk to the kids (they will let you know if you failed).

Try other things that are outside of your comfort zone. If you're a preacher then join a public speaking club like Toastmasters where you can't talk for half-an-hour about the bible. If you're like me it will challenge you and cause you to fail. Take up a hobby where you learn a new skill then perform that skill in public where there's the high risk of failure.

Learning to fail publicly gives us the confidence to keep trying new things. Experimentation is the only proven road to success, but it's filled with potholes. If you experiment, you will fail. But you stand the chance to learn valuable lessons about yourself and your craft through the process.

How have you failed well? What important lessons have you learned?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Stage Fright

It might seem like a professional public speaker would be over the fears commonly associated with getting up in front of a crowd, but it's not true. The blog of all things helpful, Lifehacker, posted about one way to overcome your fear of public speaking. Essentially you need to psyche yourself up to get ready for getting in front of people. Listen to an energizing song or do some exercise or anything that tends to increase your energy and lift your mood.

I've noticed in preaching that there is a consistent fear of public speaking that manifests in several different ways. One is the podium shield where the preacher stands behind the podium and grips it for dear life throughout the sermon. Another is the ramble-warm-up where there's an extended time of talking about meaningless things to get over the nerves and get to the point of the sermon. There's the scripted sermon that allows the preacher to never have to look at the audience, but instead to just read the words.

One of the casualties of stage fright and the preacher's fear of public speaking is the lack of the use of PowerPoint. I've heard myriad objections to the use of PowerPoint in preaching, but most of them boil down to the fear of the preacher. Learning a new skill and the accompanying risk of failure in a public forum causes the stage fright to kick in before the sermon is written. PowerPoint is avoided because it's different and might be difficult, and above all because it might not work.

What does your stage fright make you do? How do you overcome stage fright?

Photo Credit: Yamil Flores -

Friday, April 08, 2011

Make things Tangible

The United States Government is shutting down because congress can't agree on a budget for the remainder of 2011. The government shutdown will affect hundreds of thousands of people employed by the Federal institutions.

They are arguing over $37 billion. That sounds like a lot of money. To you and me that's a huge amount of money. But the argument that has shut down the wheels of governing is over less than one percent of the annual budget of $3,818.8 billion.

Less than one percent isn't that much at all. The average salary for an American worker is $42,000, so it would be the equivalent of asking you to lose $400 from your annual spending. That would be $33 a month out of your pocket. You could sponsor a child for less than that.

But the issue is bigger than that. See, the big problem with the budget isn't that we're spending our money in the wrong ways, it's that we're spending money we don't have. Our annual Federal deficit is 43%. That means that our government is spending way more money than it brings in.

So if this were you or me, we would be making $42,000 a year, but spending $74,000 - racking up credit card debt of $31,000 a year. So our friends and family have an intervention to help us get our wildly out of control spending in check. They sit us down and tell us that we can't leave until we write a budget that we can stick to. So we write up our budget for the next month (a month with $2,600 in debt-spending) and we trim $60. Then our friends and family tell us that it has to come from a different place. We can't spend money on popcorn at the movies anymore because that's not healthy. We refuse to budge on the popcorn issue. So none of us go to work the next week. That makes good sense and it's best for everyone involved. Right?

How can you use tangible details to communicate your message.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Use Details to Connect

I don't connect well with generalities. Neither do you. When President Obama speaks, he doesn't share sweeping statistics as much as he singles out one person in a specific situation to make his point. Remember Joe the Plumber? He became a sensation during the 2008 election because he was "everyman" embodied.

If you want to speak with power and connect with people, then using specific details is important. This is another point that I gleaned from reading Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. It's the details that make the story stick with people. There's a difference between statistics and details, however. I could tell you about the 300 million people in the US, and give you percentages that believe a certain way or act a certain way. But what will make the idea connect with you is if I tell you about my uncle or friend who had a real experience. Cancer is a vague problem until I know someone in chemotherapy who's tired and bald. 

Put a face on your ideas to let your audience visualize what you have to say. 

(Note: I earn a small commission from any books purchased through the link.)

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Use Emotions to Connect

You might remember the website Save Toby from a few years back where the author posted several pictures of a cute bunny and said that he was broke and out of money. As a result he would have to eat his beloved rabbit if he didn't raise enough money to pay his bills. The donations started pouring in (along with the controversy à la organizations like PETA). The thing about the Save Toby campaign is that no matter how you viewed the website, it was engaging on an emotional level. I saw it as a great joke (humor), some people saw it as a tragedy and gave money (sympathy, pity), others saw it as a travesty and fought to shut down the site (anger).

One of the ways that ideas are sticky, according to  Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, is that they provide an emotional connection. In one sense it doesn't matter much what emotion you use. They all connect people with an idea and get them moving toward action. But emotions will only carry an idea so far. After that something else needs to kick in and get people moving (joy, community, reward, purpose, etc.).

I don't know if you had a similar experience in youth group, but when I was going through there was a strong emphasis on emotional connection. We would spend time thinking about how our sins made Jesus suffer on the cross and even go so far as to nail a piece of paper with our sin written on it to a cross. There were a lot of emotions involved, but the change wasn't lasting because the emotions were mostly negative (guilt, fear, shame) and didn't connect to any positive way to change.

This isn't too far off of the hell-fire and brimstone sermons of a past age. The thought is that if you scare people or make them feel guilty, then they'll do what's right. That might be true, for the short term, but in the long run it won't be a lasting change.

A good presenter uses emotions to connect with people, but uses them wisely.

How do you provide an emotional connection when you speak?

(Note: the book link earns me a small commission on any sales.)

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Made to Stick, How to Communicate Ideas

When you speak, most of your ideas will fall bounce off of people and disappear from them forever. A very few ideas have what it takes to stick with people. In the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die Authors and brothers Chip and Dan Heath explore the stickiness of some ideas over others. They start by looking at the incredibly sticky ideas that are urban legends. Urban legends connect on an emotional level with concrete details yet have a twist at the end that really draws us in. They obviously wrote an entire book about how to make ideas stick (and you should read it, it's good stuff), so I won't explain everything they've said so well.

I want to share one of the points that they make that relates to public speaking. Good communication is aware of schemata. A schema (the singular of schemata) is a psychology word used to describe a pattern of thoughts. One of the examples in the book is the schema of a chair. We hold in our thoughts the idea of what a chair ought to be and do, and that can encompass a huge variety from folding metal chairs to plush leather wing-back chairs. Connect your idea to a schema that people are already familiar with and you are letting them do most of your communication. So I can tell you about a rickety wooden chair and you have a fairly clear picture of what I'm talking about. I added two words to the chair-schema and that is sufficient to differentiate one chair from millions of others.

How can you use schemata to communicate more effectively?

(Note: The book link earns me a small commission on any sales)

Monday, April 04, 2011

April Theme - Speaking Visually

No matter how good your PowerPoint slides are, your presentation will only be as good as you are. Everything begins and ends with how you present. If you're a great public speaker, adding PowerPoint slides can connect more people with your message in more ways. But if you skimp on the speaking skills, the slides will do little to bolster a poor talk. So, for the month of April I want to focus on the theme of presentation skills.

Specifically, I want to look at speaking visually. It's important for us to create vivid images with our words so we can connect what we have to say with what's going on in the brains of our audience. Our brains function as primarily visual/spatial processors which means that if you aren't giving people queues to help them visualize what you're saying, then they likely will miss much of what you're attempting to communicate. It's as if our brains are vast art galleries with paintings on the walls and blank canvases stacked up in the corners. You can access a painting that people already have up and link what you have to say to what they already know. You essentially give them a mental post-it note attached to that painting. So now they associate what you said with their previous mental image. If you want to talk about teamwork, you can point to their memory of little league or to a famous team incident so you tag on to what they've already visualized.

Or, you can lead them in painting on a fresh canvas, but we can talk about that more tomorrow.

How do you help people visualize what you say?

Friday, April 01, 2011

Changes in the Next Version of PowerPoint

Over at the PowerPoint blog they've begun announcing some exciting changes that will be rolling out with the first service pack for Office 2010.

You loved it when they rolled out the new, intuitive Ribbon interface known as the Office Fluent User Interface. And the upcoming changes will be no different. The PowerPoint team has heard the cries, or rather snores, from conference rooms the world over. It may have taken eight long years for them to heed the call of Edward Tufte that "PowerPoint is Evil" but they've finally done it.

With the next version of PowerPoint, bullet points will be disabled by default. Not only that, but no more than six words will be permitted on any slide in the standard template, making Seth Godin cheer. Finally, when you create a presentation you won't be able to include more than ten slides at a time and if PowerPoint detects that it's in presentation mode for longer than 20 minutes it will shut off automatically in order to follow Guy Kawasaki's 10/20/30 rule.

Finally the makers of PowerPoint are doing something to combat the rampant plague, Death by PowerPoint.