The Lost Art of the Great Speech

I love speeches. No, actually, I hate most speeches, I love great speeches. That is why I watched much of the Democratic National Convention this week. I was on the lookout for great use of language.

There are so few people who write for the spoken word, and so few speakers who can deliver those well-crafted words so they impact the listener, change lives and live on in history.

Part of what I do professionally is help pastors and other leaders fine-tune their message, crafting the words, adding media to strengthen the impact and add pacing and drama — all parts of  effective speaking (and preaching).  Not just to have a great discourse, but to effect change; to take people with you on a journey and then watch them at the end of the speech take the action that you passionately proposed.

At the DNC we saw two great speeches delivered by two great speakers: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Skillful phrasing, great word play, and an ability to deliver well crafted words with passion. I am not discussing politics here, and I am not suggesting they told the truth or didn’t made promises they cannot keep. My point is simply to point out the intense power of potent words in the mouth of a great speaker.  Barack gave this speech on the anniversary of another great message (I have a dream) delivered by a masterful preacher (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.).  Barack’s message was not as earthshaking as Martin’s, but it was very good.

This week two politicians (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) gave a master class in oration, and most evangelicals probably can’t get past the political party they represent long enough to learn anything from them.

As Phil Cooke says in Branding Faith (why some churches and non-profits impact the culture and others don’t), “the world tells bad stories really well, while the church tells the greatest story really poorly.” [sorry Phil if I screwed that up a bit – I know I’m close!]

My take-away from all this: be excellent. Tonight Obama put on an excellent show, but it would have been futile if he didn’t deliver on the message — and he really nailed it.  Compare the speech tonight with the rest of the convention (with the exception of Bill Clinton’s speech)… I can’t tell you anything about Hillary’s speech or Biden’s speech, and my God, don’t even bring up Al Gore… all well trained, highly paid professionals, who should be inspiring, but they were just so boring.  They tried hard (many even worked up a sweat and in some churches that would be a sure sign they were under the anointing!), but they were ineffective. What a waste.

How often does that happen on Sunday morning?

I don’t for one moment believe that the delivery of the message by word is more effective than the preaching of the message by deed, but if you are going to open your mouth in support of our Lord, do it well.

If you need help, let me know.

Posted on August 29, 2008 in Uncategorized

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Responses (8)

  1. Phil Cooke
    August 29, 2008 at 10:36 am ·

    Excellent post. In a media-driven culture, how you say it is just as important as what you say. Even the mainstream media now understand that Obama’s policies and thinking aren’t very deep – and the more people get to know him, the more he falls in the polls. But it was his early speeches that inspired people and created the “messiah complex.” He’s good onstage, no question about it.

  2. holy cow it's michael buckingham
    August 29, 2008 at 11:11 am ·

    You have to mean it. Phil is right on…the how is just as important as the what, but both fall apart when you don’t really mean any of it. Like I said here, our deeds are what set us apart. We can take care of the what and how…but the big change is in the doing.

    I don’t for one moment believe that the delivery of the message by word is more effective than the preaching of the message by deed

    Joe, what a great reminder to all of us who are communicators…we can get so wrapped up in the importance of excellence in how we are communicating we can forget the vital role that doing plays, or should play, in our lives.

  3. Nate Chesley
    August 29, 2008 at 12:28 pm ·

    My ears were accosted by an old school fire-and-brimstoner on a busy street corner near campus yesterday, and I could actually see the damage he was doing. I felt the immediate need to commence damage control on the friends I was walking with, and this post connected with that experience in me. We have a lot of undoing to do. On the radio the other day, I heard a clip where some fellow was just conceding that “granted, not all Muslims are so extreme, but the fact is that the extreme faction is the loudest,” (my paraphrase) and proceeded to pin responsibility for them on the Muslim community at large. Are we not in a similar boat, living as Christians in America? All this to say yes, it is so important that we think well, communicate excellently, and with an awareness that we are competing with the voices that would discredit our faith.

  4. nanecook
    August 29, 2008 at 1:14 pm ·

    A – the heck – men! Everyone in this culture is longing to be moved. Panting to feel tears and shout ‘yes.’ We’re emotionally all grown up and we’ve flat-lined. It’s not about manipulating the Holy Ghost (goose.) It’s about speaking truth, checking in with our audience and engaging them from their pew. Let’s let go of the controls, be as thoughtful as possible and get jiggy. Thanks for putting it out there Joe.

  5. Chuck Brown
    August 29, 2008 at 4:42 pm ·

    The world is in desparate need of great storytellers. And I couldn’t agree more with the Phil Cooke quote. It’s been interesting to watch the emergence of stories of late that worry less about getting every little point correct, and more about catching the reader up in the story….even when faith is a part of the mix. I can think of 3 example:

    1. probably the best-known is The Shack. It’s pretty indefensible from a doctrinal standpoint once you get to a certain point. It’s there to illustrate grace…and it seems to be doing a lot to touch people who have major baggage with difficult/abusive parents or major bad personal history with the church.
    2. I also read “Empire of Lies” by Andrew Klavan (author of “True Crime” and “Don’t Say a Word”…both big-time Hollywood movies). He’s a political conservative, but not a believer, as far as I can tell. But he’s chosen to use a Christian as the protagonist of this story and to try to be respectful of him and his worldview…as he struggles to work his way thru major personal crises. Interesting to see this approach, which I haven’t encountered often.
    3. Ted Dekker’s “Adam”. I just listened to this audiobook over the last couple days. Dekker (a successful Christian novelist, for anyone who may not be familiar) plays into the context of the anti-God popular culture by starting out this story (of a serial killer and the FBI agent obsessed with his capture) firmly grounded in atheism and cultist religion. When he finally does introduce God, it’s in the context of the apparently-undeniable existence of the supernatural thru the unusual vehicle of demonic possession. (

    Three interesting stories that focus on the telling of tale more than the message…but that don’t forget the message…and are apparently having an impact on their audiences.

    I’m a sucker for a great story. I think most of us are.

  6. JoeSindorf
    August 29, 2008 at 5:05 pm ·

    Good point, Chuck.

    Great stories are wonderful, but even better are well-told great stories. Storytelling is an art. The successful orator knows how to skillfully and artisticly tell their story in such a way that you suspend disbelief and follow him/her on the exciting journey to wherever they lead you.

    My rant is that those who tell the Greatest Story need to get their storytelling act together, because they should be held to a higher standard.

  7. Emilio Espinosa
    August 30, 2008 at 12:52 am ·

    I think that we often fail to tell the story well because we’re not telling the story right. Preaching the Gospel has become something more akin to selling snake-oil. We make outlandish claims based on shaky interpretations and hearsay. We rely on theatrics and spectacular displays rather than letting the bare and plain face of Christ show itself as it is.

    I have been struck as of late with the thought of Revelations 12:11, and how it is by two simple instruments that we have success in the world. The first is, of course, the full-payment for the debt we owe because of sin through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross at Calvary. This instrument is referred to as “the blood of the lamb” in the verse. The second instrument is “the word of their testimony.” Their testimony – our testimony – is nothing more than the account of what has happened since accepting the first instrument. It’s our story, plain and simple. Nowhere in the verse, the chapter, the book, or the whole of the Bible itself, are we told that their is supposed to be any more to the story than the story itself. Embellishment, emotionalism, theatrics, and spectacle can in no way increase the power of testimony, and it certainly can not give power to that which is not a true testimony. Here is where I believe that we fail.

    It seems that those who have taken the mantle of preacher think it is not enough merely to share the story. They lack faith in the simplicity of the power of God and introduce their own spin into the mix. The result is not alive, it is merely animation, it is something that mimics that which is living but that completely lacks life of it’s own to share. This type of story-telling can’t compel or inspire or sustain it’s hearers. At best, it can entertain and entertainment is fleeting, gripping the viewer only for a time before they tire of it and begin to look for the next entertainment without ever being completely satisfied let alone being fulfilled, moved, or meaningfully changed.

    The apostle Paul said that he would only preach “Christ and Him crucified.” Paul understood that it was only by telling the pure story as it was that there could be any power manifest through it. His legacy for living by this virtue is the vast majority of the New Testament, words that will ring throughout eternity; messages preached with true and everlasting power. Whose “ready for prime time 5-CD, 3-DVD, and companion study guide plus a covenant partner chotchke for a pre-determined love gift amount” from last month will ever have an iota of that relevance, not to mention power?

    To quote from the great Oswald Chambers:

    When we preach the historic facts of the life and death of Our Lord as they are conveyed in the New Testament, our words are made sacramental, God uses them on the ground of His Redemption to create in those who listen that which is not created otherwise. If we preach the effects of Redemption in human life instead of the revelation regarding Jesus, the result in those who listen is not new birth, but refined spiritual culture, and the Spirit of God cannot witness to it because such preaching is in another domain. We have to see that we are in such living sympathy with God that as we proclaim His truth He can create in souls the things which He alone can do.

  8. JoeSindorf
    August 30, 2008 at 12:05 pm ·

    Hey, with teaching like that, I’ll send in a love gift!

    Great stuff Jose — bringing it back to the political speech, our preachers who believe they have to merchandise the gospel or package their latest blessing kit are like the politicians who know their messages aren’t potent enough, so they have to add falsehoods and empty promises to give the itching ears of their listeners something to cling to.

    Thanks for the great comments. Let’s get back preaching Christ and Him crucified, but doing it well, in the power of the Spirit.

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