Still honing my skills

When I was in high school, one of the events at speech meets was called extemporaneous speech. The format was fairly simple. I don’t remember all of the specific rules, but when I competed, we were presented with three questions. We had a period of preparation, which was timed. During the preparation period the contestant chose one of the questions and prepared a seven-minute speech. At the end of the preparation the speech was delivered from memory, without notes to a panel of three judges. In our small high school, which had an equally small speech team most of us competed in multiple events. I competed in original oratory, which was a highly prepared speech, honed over weeks and polished. The speech had to be a self-written ten minute speech. It was good to have an emotional appeal to the speech.

I enjoyed participating in speech in high school and did fairly well, bringing home an occasional trophy from a meet. Extemporaneous and oratory were the two events in which I competed. Most speech meets involved several rounds, so I might give as many as six speeches during a meet. If you had asked me at the time, I would have said that I enjoyed oratory better than extemporaneous, but I was more successful in extemporaneous. My plan for approaching an extemporaneous topic was simple. Pick the question about which you had the most information. Sometimes topics would be foreign policy or issues specific to another country. Given the times in which I went to high school, you could count on drawing at least one question about Vietnam in each meet. I was pretty quick to select a topic, because I knew that wasn’t the most important part of preparation. The next step was to get an opening line that i could easily remember. Then I went for the conclusion - how I would end the speech. I knew it went better if I could find a story to illustrate the points in between.

I was thinking about high school speech meets recently because someone referred to my preaching style as extemporaneous. I think the person was complimenting me on my preaching, but I don’t think of what I do as being like a high school speech meet at all. And if it is, I think it is more like oratory than extemporaneous. In both events in high school, I spoke without notes. In oratory, I had memorized an entire ten-minute speech word for word. Occasionally there would be a lapse of memory and I had to keep going. I occasionally left out sentence or even a section of a speech, which resulted in a disaster and a shortened speech.

I still deliver most of my sermons without notes, although I always use manuscripts for funerals and weddings and I preach from a manuscript when I haven’t had enough time to prepare for worship. When I started preaching without notes, I essentially memorized a sermon, just like high school oratory. However, I found that I needed to develop a bit of flexibility. I remember well the Sunday I had a well-crafted sermon that I’d worked hard on preparing. I had even delivered it to the empty church a couple of times. Then the local high school basketball team won the state championship the night before the sermon. I knew that was a possibility. I had been following the team’s games very closely. I also knew that I had two churches, one where the team wasn’t competing in the state tournament and one where the team would either win or lose. I had to have a variety of different options for my sermon. After the victory and delivering an acceptable sermon in the church where the team wasn’t in the tournament, I only had a half hour or so to completely rework the sermon, knowing that what I had prepared wouldn’t work at all.

Over the years, I’ve gotten better a flexibility and adaptation. I used to follow the process of writing a manuscript, then outlining the sermon. For a lot of years, I had a sermon outline in the front cover of my bible when I stepped into the sanctuary. Many times I didn’t ned to refer to the outline, but it was there in case i needed support.

What I have learned, however, is that oral language is very different from written language. Good writing doesn’t always result in an interesting oral presentation. In oral language we use more repetition. Run-on sentences are acceptable. Sort sentences and even stand alone words can be effectively employed. Sometimes I transcribe a sermon from a recording. It usually needs to be edited before it can be given out as a written document.

Now I am being challenged by a need to develop a new way of speaking. When I preach in the congregation, I have the faces of the people that I can read. I can tell how things are going and whether or not I am communicating by the folks in the room. If I get a very quiet pause, I know they are listening. If there is a lot of movement and chatter, I know I need to focus their attention. Decades of delivering sermons has given me some experience on how to adapt. But it is very different facing a camera with my congregation spread out in their homes.

I’ve been delivering daily prayers with manuscripts. I write out the prayer before I set in front of the camera. This coming Sunday, we will be working from a full manuscript. With two of us, we need to practice the timing of delivery in order to get things the way we need. I think I could develop the confidence to become less dependent upon written notes, but it will take time. And, truthfully, I hope I don’t get the time to perfect the skill. I am eager for our congregation to get back together and we will do so as soon as we are able to with safety.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about high school speech meets and how nervous I used to get. I hope I can use that nervous energy to deliver meaningful messages to our people.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!