Preaching as Oral Communication

We make a weird move in our seminary homiletics classes. After having

spent at least sixteen years educating these students out of their natural,

oral culture of stories, images, jokes, and slang, and into a literate world

of books, term papers, and abstract ideas, in one semester of a preaching

class we try to drag them back to their oral talents.


Yet many commentators have been saying for some time that our

entire culture is making the same move. Gutenberg helped to create the

modern world with his printing press, a world in which the written, printed

word predominated. Now many believe we are in the “postmodern”

world where TV, computers, and other technologies have dismantled the

literate culture and returned us to oral communication. Most of us receive

most of our information through TV. Even a hip newspaper like USA

Today tries to look like TV. The words on my computer screen may look

like print, but what looks like type are only flashes of light, having more

in common with the transience of the spoken word than the permanence

of print.


Preaching must recover a sense of itself as an oral event. When, in

your first preaching class in seminary, the professor said, “You will hand

in three sermons this semester,” those weren’t sermons. Nothing lying on

paper is a sermon. A sermon must be spoken, “done,” performed. You

haven’t “done” King Lear if you read it. It’s a play; therefore it can only be

encountered in performance. Sermons are like that.

Therefore Clyde Fant, great teacher of preachers, spoke of the need

for “oral preparation” of sermons. Fant advised us first to speak a sermon;

then, only after we have tried speaking the sermon aloud in our study

should we put anything down on paper. On paper, the eye gives clues to

the reader through paragraphs, underlining, punctuation. The hearer has

no such clues; therefore the speaker must help the hearer with transitions,

emphases, and coherence. A manuscript can delude us into thinking that

our sermon is more coherent and comprehensible than it really is when



Retaining a sense of orality is perhaps the greatest advantage of

preaching without a manuscript. A sermon manuscript gives us preachers

the illusion that we have “done” a sermon when at last we have fixed

words on a page. On the page, the reader is given clues by the writer when

to pause, when to stop and ponder, when to move on. When spoken, the

sermon has no punctuation marks, no paragraph indentations, none of

these printed clues to help it communicate. In writing out our sermons,

our sentences tend to be too long, our thought patterns too involved. We

lose a sense of movement and rhythm.


Even when we know our manuscript well, we tend to look at the

manuscript rather than look at our listeners. We miss clues that our listeners

are sending us when they don’t understand, or when they are losing

interest. Preaching is a visual as well as an auditory affair. Oral communication

requires eye contact as sender and receiver send one another clues

about what is being communicated.


Most of us preachers must work to regain and to develop our oral

skills. In some traditions, such as the Pentecostal, or in African American

churches, preachers never lose those skills. TV’s presentation of a composed,

polished talking head, eyes fixed on the viewer (reading from the

teleprompter!) gives us preachers some competition. Yet, oral skills are

learned—eye contact, timing, pacing, voice control, memory, humor,

posture are all skills that we can improve despite our innate gifts or lack



Have yourself videotaped. Ask yourself, in viewing this tape, “How

do I appear to others as I speak?” Listen to the audiotapes or videotapes

of other preachers, even attempting to imitate some of their oral techniques.

Imitation can be the path toward eventually finding your own

voice. Preachers have learned much from Garrison Keillor.


Deliver your sermon in front of a mirror.

I find myself watching the performers on The Comedy Channel on

our cable TV. Despite the content, here are people who speak for a living,

who develop their sense of timing, their interaction with the listeners,

their love of words for the sheer sound of them.


And give yourself credit. I have noted how even the most mediocre

of us preachers demonstrate a facility with the spoken word, skill in oral

communication, the holiness of one human being telling the truth to others,

which is rare in our culture.


So, if we are moving from a once predominately print and literate

culture to an oral and imaged culture, we preachers may be rediscovered.

Our day has come!           

Will Willimon


3 thoughts on “Preaching as Oral Communication

  1. This is fabulous. Please send me where you know you are preaching in the next six months. Seeing you in person is so great for me.I may just join you and Patsy. I am going everywhere I can as there is a rumor that old age is coming. Harry


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