Speaking Well: Essential Skills for Speakers, Leaders, and Preachers

Speaking Well: Essential Skills for Speakers, Leaders, and Preachers

by Adam Hamilton


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The thought of speaking in public strikes fear in the hearts of many. But we are often called upon to speak, teach, preach, or make presentations in our work and personal lives. In Speaking Well, Adam Hamilton offers nineteen powerful tips and tactics that lead to excellent speaking in any setting.

“One of today’s masters instructs us in the art of public speaking. I wish I’d had this book twenty years ago!” —Cal Turner, retired CEO of Dollar General

“A great and fun book for all who speak in public . . .” —Jerre Stead, Chairman and CEO of IHS Inc.

“Adam teaches us how to use the gift of words effectively and in ways that elevate and inspire those who hear them. ” —Irvine O. Hockaday Jr., retired President and CEO of Hallmark Cards (1985–2001)

“This little book will improve your preparation, content, delivery, and impact.” —Patricia Farris, Senior Minister, First United Methodist Church, Santa Monica, CA

“Want to be a better speaker? Read this book! It will remind you of things you know but have forgotten and will give you new practices to follow.” —O. Wesley Allen Jr., Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX

“An unbelievably helpful pocket resource . . .” —Frank Thomas, Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, IN

“If you want to become a better public speaker, take lessons from a master.” —Mike Bonem, speaker, consultant, and author of Leading from the Second Chair

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501809934
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 10/20/2015
Pages: 96
Sales rank: 346,004
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.10(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Adam Hamilton is senior pastor of The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, one of the fastest growing, most highly visible churches in the country. The Church Report named Hamilton’s congregation the most influential mainline church in America, and he preached at the National Prayer Service as part of the presidential inauguration festivities in 2013.

Hamilton is the best-selling and award-winning author of The Walk, Simon Peter, Creed, Half Truths, The Call, The Journey, The Way, 24 Hours That Changed the World, John, Revival, Not a Silent Night, Enough, When Christians Get It Wrong, and Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, all published by Abingdon Press. Learn more about Adam Hamilton at AdamHamilton.com.

Read an Excerpt

Speaking Well

Essential Skills for Speakers, Leaders, and Preachers

By Adam Hamilton

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5018-0994-1


Ask Three Questions

We'll begin with what may be the most important component to giving an effective speech: asking the right questions. There are three very simple questions your talk, speech, or sermon should be built upon: why? who? and what?


When I'm asked to give a speech, talk, or sermon outside of my home church, I want to know, Why am I being asked to speak? Why me? Why are others being asked to listen to me? The underlying question is really about the purpose, aim, or mission of the talk. Sometimes those who ask you to speak aren't clear about the answers to these questions. They may say, "Well, we needed someone to talk at our event and we heard you're a good speaker." Sometimes they follow this with, "You can talk on anything you want to, just be inspirational!" Here's what I've found: The less clarity I have around the purpose, the mission, the goal, or the why of a talk I'm going to give, the harder it is to prepare and the less effective my talk is. The greater clarity I have around the mission or purpose of the talk, the more likely I am to feel the talk was effective.

When someone isn't clear about the why of the talk they hope I'll give, I'll spend time trying to help them work through this. I may begin by asking them to describe the mission of their organization and the purpose of the particular event where I'll be speaking.

For preachers preparing and delivering a weekly message for their local church, the sermon should serve the mission, vision, and goals of the local church. For those who speak in the workplace, it is critically important that your presentations and talks align with the mission and purpose of your organization. If you are in charge in your organization, and speaking, you must answer these essential questions for yourself — no one else will answer them for you.


Once you are clear about the mission or purpose, of both the group you are speaking to and the particular speech you are going to give, your next step is to know to whom you will be speaking. What will be on their hearts and minds as you speak to them? What might they need to hear from you? I find this is an easier task with the congregation I serve, since I know them well. It requires more homework when I'm speaking to groups with which I'm less familiar.

I was recently asked to give a ten-minute talk to caregivers in the community — therapists, pastors, rabbis, and others who devote a great deal of their time to caring for people who struggle. I knew that the people in this audience often feel burned-out and overwhelmed from bearing the burdens of others. As I began to work on my talk, I thought about what I might share that would offer encouragement to this particular group and their unique situation. Know your audience, understand the challenges they face, and consider the questions and concerns they are wrestling with. This will enable you to offer a timely and relevant message.

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address in 1933 the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Fear had gripped the nation and hopelessness was in the air. What Roosevelt knew was that he needed to calm these fears, reassure the country, and communicate to the nation that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Eighty years later, we still recall these words as some of the most compelling in any inaugural address, but they were written in response to FDR's clear understanding of people's needs.


Finally, in light of the why and the who, I begin looking for the what. I begin asking, "What do I want my hearers to know? What do I want them to feel or experience? And what do I want them to do in response to this message?" These questions correspond to the head, the heart, and the hands. You may recognize them as three of the four Hs of the 4-H clubs. The founders of 4-H believed that people learn and develop best when they engage their heads (intellect), hearts (emotions), and hands (action). This premise is important for speakers as well. Answer the what question, and you're more likely to include material that resonates with more people, on multiple levels, in multiple ways. You'll also be ready to begin writing your speech with a strong and focused idea of what your content should include.

As a speaker you should know why you are speaking, you should understand the people to whom you are speaking, and you should be clear about what you want those people to know, feel, and do as a response to your message.


Think Less Me, More We

Among the most often used words in our vocabulary are I, Me, and My. Effective speakers minimize the use of those self-oriented words in favor of We, Us, and Our.

If I, Me, and My dominate your speaking, you'll sound more self-absorbed than you actually are (or maybe your speaking betrays the fact that you are more self-absorbed than you realize). It is off-putting to many people. It also diminishes your audience, making them passive listeners instead of active participants. It is as if you're saying, "Just sit there and listen; this is all about me!"

I remember some years ago a national political leader who used I far more than he should have. Even his friends cringed at times, but most were unwilling to tell him. Those in his own political party often found his language irritating. For his political opponents, it was like hearing someone scratch their fingernails down a chalkboard. It gave people the impression that he was egotistical and that he didn't need or care about them. This is how our hearers react when we use I, Me, and My instead of We, Us, and Our.

There are times when you will need to use I, Me, and My language. It can't be avoided entirely, and there are times when telling your own story is important. The most effective use of first-person language is when you are sharing your own shortcomings to illustrate a principle, or when you are poking fun at yourself. Though this can also be effective when emphasizing your own experience or convictions.

Excellent speakers try to avoid being the hero of their own stories. Again, at times you can't avoid it. The best illustration of a point may be a story that involved you and will be hard to tell without referring to yourself. But when possible, find a way to make a positive story about someone else, and leave yourself out. Sometimes, to set an example for the people in my congregation, I share a situation when I feel I did get something right. Instead of telling the story about myself, I'll say something like, "A guy I know ..." and attribute the activity to this anonymous person. It is usually possible, and always preferable, to deliver a talk that focuses on others rather than our selves.

Minimize the I,Me, and My, and invite your hearers to be a part of your speech/sermon/talk by using We, Us, and Our language instead. Poke fun at yourself while ascribing the positive examples you set to an anonymous person you know. These are habits of effective speakers.


Find the Right Starting Point

As we learned in chapter 1, most effective speakers have a goal in mind — something they want their hearers to understand or feel, some kind of action they hope their hearers will take, an idea they hope to convince listeners of. For the preacher it is usually a proposition from scripture — a truth to be believed, a hope to be trusted, and almost always a calling to be fulfilled. If you are a politician delivering a campaign speech, the ultimate goal is to persuade your hearers that you are the right woman or man for the job, though often politicians are speaking to the already-persuaded, in which case the aim is to raise money, recruit volunteers, or be overheard by the media. If you are in sales, you are selling a product. In most speeches or talks it's critical to have clarity around the goal of your talk.

Once you are clear about the aim of your talk, it is important to think about the structure of your message. The key question regarding structure is "where do I begin?" Do you start with the solution and then work your way to the problem? Or do you begin with the problem and then work your way to the solution?

In seminary most preachers are taught to start with the solution — typically found in a passage of scripture. They are taught that an effective preacher starts by exegeting the text (carefully understanding and explaining the meaning of the text to its author and original hearers). Next the preacher seeks to show which question, problem, or situation in contemporary life the biblical text provides the solution or answer to. Finally the preacher illustrates the way the scripture applies to our daily lives with a story that drives the point home. The structure looks something like this:


Many mainline preachers turn to the Revised Common Lectionary, a preassigned set of scriptures for each Sunday of the year. The Lectionary offers four scriptures each weekend — a text from the Old Testament, another from the Psalms, a passage from the Gospels, and a selection from the rest of the New Testament. The assumption beneath this method of preaching is that regardless of what is happening in the world, or in the lives of the members of the congregation, one of these four texts will offer up an answer to life's problems, a timely word to speak to what's happening in our world or in the congregants' lives. I use this form of preaching regularly, though not typically drawing the text from the lectionary. Instead I'll preach through a book of the Bible, or the stories from the life of a biblical character, or a particular group of scriptures (the parables of Jesus, a certain category of Psalms, or the Ten Commandments, etc.)

But there is another way to approach preaching (I'll illustrate this for you nonpreachers in a moment): rather than starting with the answer then looking for the question or problem, we can start with the question or problem in the world or our hearers' lives, then search for the answer. (For preachers, we search for that answer in scripture.)

This requires identifying questions, concerns, and individual or communal problems, then exegeting (unpacking or seeking to understand) these. We study and consider the question or the problem, so that we can understand why it is our hearers are asking it, or facing it, or wrestling with it.

As an example, several years ago I surveyed the congregation I serve and discovered that a significant number of people were struggling with issues related to forgiveness. This led me to prepare a series of sermons on forgiveness. Each message started with the various problems our members had articulated to me regarding their struggles with forgiveness. I sought to "exegete" the various problems they had in forgiving others. Exegeting this meant trying to understand the various situations in which forgiveness was particularly difficult to offer or accept. Once I understood more about the problem, I was able to look for biblical texts offering insight, wisdom, and inspiration related to forgiveness. (This series was eventually published as a book called Forgiveness by Abingdon Press.)

In this kind of preaching, often called topical or thematic preaching, you start with the problem, study to gain clarity about it, then offer answers from scripture and illustrate those answers with real-life examples. The structure of this kind of preaching looks like this:


These two different approaches, starting with the problem or starting with the solution, apply to all kinds of presentations. Years ago a vacuum cleaner salesman came to our door. He didn't begin by telling us what a great vacuum cleaner he was selling. He began by asking if he could use our own vacuum cleaner to vacuum our carpets. We let him do this and he ran our vacuum over our living room carpet a couple of times. Then he said, "Now, I'd like to show you what's still down in your carpet." He plugged in his demonstration model, inserted a new filter, and vacuumed the same carpet. Then he opened up his cleaner and showed us what it had picked up. Yikes! We had a problem we did not even know about.

Once we were sold on the fact that our old vacuum cleaner wasn't getting the job done and that we had all kinds of dirt in our carpets that we could not see, he explained how his company's product was a superior vacuum cleaner, with more power and suction, leaving our carpets cleaner for our little daughter.

I had just graduated from seminary and we were too poor at the time to buy his vacuum cleaner. But if we'd had the money we would have bought one on the spot. The salesman started by showing us the problem and then worked his way to the solution, and it was highly effective. I'm guessing he sold a lot of vacuums.

Both structures can provide a compelling approach for a message, speech, or presentation, and I rotate between the two in the sermon series I deliver at the church I serve. My experience is that people are more often immediately engaged when the message begins with the question, problem, or issue, but both can be effective.

The starting point is a critical consideration in speaking well. Carefully determine which approach will work best: starting with the question or starting with the answer. Often, the question is the right place to start.


Include the Key Ingredient

You've got great content. You feel passionate about your subject matter. You're clear about your why, who, and what. Your presentation is well researched. You seem to have all the makings for a great speech, talk, or sermon. Then you deliver your talk and you watch as your hearers' eyes start to glaze over. A week later (maybe sooner) no one can remember what you spoke about. What went wrong?

There's one ingredient that is vital to most effective talks: illustrations. Illustrations are usually stories, though they might be video clips or even photographs that illustrate the point you are trying to make in a way that touches the heart. Most of the time a presentation must move from the head to the heart if your hearers are going to remember it. It's no accident that the Gospel accounts of Jesus' teachings are loaded with his stories and other illustrations drawn from everyday life. Most of the stories Jesus told are known as parables. Undoubtedly, Jesus taught far more than what is recorded in scripture — John tells us that all the books in the world could not contain it! But what his early disciples remembered were the stories he told to illustrate some dimension of what he called "the kingdom of God."

Those who speak well are constantly looking for great stories. I often carry a small moleskin notebook with me to write down things that happen to me or to those around me, or illustrations drawn from nature, so that I can later remember them and file them away for future sermons. As I read the daily news on my computer I regularly save stories in files that I think might illustrate a sermon or talk at some point in the future.

I've been to a half dozen shows on Broadway. I always take a pen and paper with me. I've found that every great play or musical deals with some dimension of the human condition. Most are packed full of illustrations. I do the same with movies. I enjoy the show, but sometimes, in the darkness, I get out my pen and write down some scene that illustrates a truth I'll be preaching about in the months ahead.

My children, as they were growing up, were a regular source of illustrations, though we had an agreement (drafted by my daughter, Rebecca) that I had to ask permission in advance to use something they said or did in a sermon or be fined five dollars per time I told the story! Even our animals provide great illustrations and stories. What makes these illustrations so effective is that they are the kind of everyday things that nearly everyone can imagine or relate to in some way, but that serve to illustrate a point in the message.

Here are a couple of examples of these kind of stories: On many occasions our beagle, Maggie, has served to illustrate my sermons. She's a great dog and we love her like crazy, but she does things that dogs do that perfectly illustrate our tendency as human beings to do things we should not do. Several years ago, while outside, she found what must have looked to her a bit like a black cat. This "cat" had a white stripe running down its back! Maggie decided she wanted to play. Soon she yelped and came running back to the back door, scratching to get in. We opened the door and she bounded inside and we knew instantly what had happened to her. We quickly grabbed her and put her back outside until we could figure out what to do. She could not come into our home until she'd been washed in a solution recommended by the Humane Society — a solution that neutralized the stench. I used this story, along with a picture of Maggie, to illustrate the Christian concept of sin, its allure and impact, and baptism as a sign of God's forgiveness.


Excerpted from Speaking Well by Adam Hamilton. Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


"Chapter One": Ask Three Questions,
"Chapter Two": Think Less Me, More We,
"Chapter Three": Find the Right Starting Point,
"Chapter Four": Include the Key Ingredient,
"Chapter Five": Humor Me,
"Chapter Six": Crowd-Source Your Content,
"Chapter Seven": Ditch the Extra Points,
"Chapter Eight": Invite Participation,
"Chapter Nine": Put a Reminder in Their Hands,
"Chapter Ten": Skip the Slides (or at Least Use Them Well),
"Chapter Eleven": Show the Pictures,
"Chapter Twelve": Get the Little Things Right,
"Chapter Thirteen": Write It Out,
"Chapter Fourteen": Say It with Your Eyes,
"Chapter Fifteen": Answer the "So What?",
"Chapter Sixteen": Address the Hot Topics,
"Chapter Seventeen": Put Your Heart in It,
"Chapter Eighteen": Eat, Pray, Sleep,
"Chapter Nineteen": Deliver the Most Important Message,
"Postscript for Preachers": Resources for Preparing Excellent Sermons,

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