The Christian Speaker and Non-verbal Communication

For the preacher, teacher, or leader, speaking well in public is vital. Of course, public speaking is verbal, but it’s also non-verbal. In fact, the majority of public speaking is non-verbal. Albert Mehrabian states, “Only 7 percent of a speaker’s message comes through his words; 38 percent springs from his voice; 55 percent comes from his facial expressions.”[1] Thus, the Christian speaker must concern himself not simply with what he says but also with how he says it. In this essay, I will consider some examples of non-verbal communication, including grooming and dress, fitness, and bodily movement and body signals.

Grooming and Dress

The importance of grooming and dress is seen in both secular and religious contexts. In her book Executive Presence, Sylvia Ann Hewlett explains that executive presence is comprised primarily of three features, one of which is appearance.[2] Appearance includes grooming and dress, as well as fitness (see below). Like it or not, the Christian speaker is judged according to his dress. “How we dress causes others to make judgments about us without their being aware of why they make those responses,” Haddon Robinson explains.[3]

The Christian speaker must consider his grooming and dress: Has he showered? Has he combed his hair, or is he disheveled? Do his clothes suit the occasion? Are they ironed? “Good grooming also includes the use of deodorants, toothpaste, and breath fresheners.”[4]

Some, especially Generation Xers and Millennials, react negatively to this point. Perhaps they’re responding partly to what they have perceived to be an overbearing, legalistic mindset from their elders on this issue. In response, they often neglect this important manifestation of non-verbal communication. Other times, knowing its importance, they intentionally underdress.

Whatever the case, the Christian speaker must face the reality that his appearance communicates something to those before whom he speaks. In addition, although he should avoid adopting a narrow view about grooming and dress on the one hand, he shouldn’t, on the other, underestimate the importance of dressing with excellence. He should also not underestimate what his grooming and dress may convey about his God and his message.

Fitness

Fitness is another important form of non-verbal communication that the Christian speaker should consider. Like the previous topic, this theme is evident in both secular and Christian settings. For one, fitness relates to Hewlett’s broader point about appearance. Bestselling novelist Stephen King makes a surprising comment on the importance of fitness: “When I’m asked for ‘the secret of my success’ (an absurd idea, that, but impossible to get away from), I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married.”[5]

Christian authors and speakers have also emphasized the importance of fitness. J. D. O’Donnell stated, “Arrange your activities so as to be in good physical condition.”[6] Harry Reeder writes, “[T]ake care of yourself physically. . . . Follow a healthful diet. Exercise,” and, “God’s people should strive to live with a regimen of rest, exercise, and diet that honors God.”[7]

Another example, Billy Graham, or “America’s pastor” as Grant Wacker describes him, also sees the importance of physical fitness. “A régime of jogging, swimming, weight lifting, mountain climbing, and, of course, golf kept him [Graham] in shape. Even when he was on the road, which was eight months a year, he maintained a schedule of rigorous daily exercise,” explains Wacker. “One worker said he was “hard as a rock.” In 1972 [this would mean that he was in his early- to mid-fifties] he proudly told the Saturday Evening Post that he ran a mile in six minutes and tried to run 1.5 miles every day.[8] Graham’s example is instructive. Being fit doesn’t mean that the Christian speaker should necessarily be training for a marathon. However, consistent, simple habits go a long way. Exercising at least thirty minutes a day, five days a week, is a good start.

In addition, the Christian speaker should learn the basic facts concerning the science of food and health. Eating healthy does not mean the Christian speaker has to sacrifice fried chicken and chocolate cake altogether; however, a regular diet of such foods is not good. Robinson explains, “A program of regular exercise and proper diet can trim off excess pounds that sometimes hinder communication.”[9]

Not only should the Christian speaker manage what he eats, but he should also mind the portion and timing of his meals. Portion sizes should be controlled; he should stop eating once he is no longer hungry, as opposed to stopping after he has stuffed himself. Also, the timing of meals is important. Typically, heavier meals should occur earlier in the day, and dinner should be eaten in the 5-6pm range rather than the 6-7pm or even the 7-8pm range. Finally, the sort of snacking that includes candies, chips, or colas should usually be avoided; fruits and water are a better alternative to the snack craving. Admittedly, life circumstances can make such ideals impractical sometimes. Yet even little changes of habit can go a long way with time.

Consider this example: The congregation or chapel audience has never heard their guest speaker speak. Yet even as he sits there, the crowd singing hymns to God, even before he has opened his mouth to speak, his appearance has already communicated something. And then the big moment comes. The speaker begins speaking, and the audience, apart from hearing his words, sees the way he gesticulates and observes his manner.

Bodily Movement and Body Signals

Without a doubt, bodily movement and body signals also play a key role in the Christian speaker’s communication. John Broadus exhorted preachers to develop appealing bodily movements and body signals. Bodily movement, he explained, is the “speech of the body, including expression of countenance, posture and gesture.”[10] Robinson writes similarly: “The eyes, hands, face, and feet say as much to a congregation as the words we utter. . . . Almost without exception, a congregation will not listen attentively to speakers who do not look at them.”[11]

With respect to posture, the Christian speaker should “acquire habitual uprightness and ease”; should not lean on the pulpit or lectern; should stand “erect,” and not with a “habitual stoop”; should hang his arms “quietly by the side,” and generally not fold them across the breast, or place them upon the hips, abdomen, or behind the back, or place them in the coat or breeches; and should keep his feet neither too far apart or in immediate contact. Finally, concerning gesture, the Christian speaker should avoid awkwardness; the errors Broadus details are too voluminous to list.[12]

Robinson also explains that the pulpit, or by application the lectern, magnifies any and all bodily movements, gestures, mannerisms, or whatever else. He writes:

When we address an audience, everything about us becomes enlarged and emphatic. Stuffing hands in the pocket, stroking the hair or face, playing with a ring, fussing with a necktie or a scarf, shuffling the feet may not be noticed when we’re talking with our friends, but they become the bad grammar of delivery. Mannerism and repetitious behavior peculiar to you may go unnoticed by your friends and be tolerated by your associates, but in the pulpit they scream for attention and divert your listeners from what you are saying. In the pulpit, therefore, the movement of your body must be disciplined to be effective.[13]

The Christian speaker should think critically about his public (and private) habits. Fortunately, with practice, he can learn to discard unhelpful gestures while employing effective ones. This may mean that he watches himself speak in front of a mirror. It may mean that he views a recorded video of himself. Or it may mean that he has two or three trusted confidants who can speak with him plainly and constructively about those habits that help and those that distract. Such analysis can be painful, but it is necessary. We may not be able to work on everything at once, but we can focus on one thing for several weeks, and then focus on something else for several weeks after that, and so on.

Conclusion

Haddon Robinson writes, “Our nonverbal language has strategic importance in public speaking,” and, “If nonverbal messages contradict the verbal, listeners will more likely believe the silent language.”[14] Although these various non-verbal forms of communication we’ve considered may seem tedious, they’re important. Grooming and dress, fitness, and bodily movement and body signals speak volumes, and the Christian speaker is wise to recognize that they communicate. His careful, critical attention to them should result in a mature, excellent style that serves his message and glorifies his God.

____________________

[1] Flora Davis, “How to Read Body Language,” in The Rhetoric of Nonverbal Communication: Readings, ed. Haig A. Bosmajian, 3-14 (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1971); in Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Preaching, third edition (1980; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 150.

[2] See Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success (N. York: Harper Business, 2014), chapter 4. The other two are gravitas and communication, considered in chapters 2-3.

[3] Robinson, 153.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Pocket Books, 2000), 154.

[6] J. D. O’Donnell, The Preacher and His Preaching (Nashville: Randall House, 1977), 108.

[7] Harry L. Reeder III, with Rod Gragg, The Leadership Dynamic: A Biblical Model for Raising Effective Leaders (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 74, 106.

[8] Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2014), 81.

[9] Robinson, 153.

[10] John Albert Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, tenth edition (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1887), 464.

[11] Robinson, 150, 158.

[12] Broadus, 468-69.

[13] Robinson, 152; italics added.

[14] Ibid., 151.

Author: Matthew Steven Bracey

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the article. Reading this brought back memories of Speech class at FWBBC (Welch) under Mrs. Thigpen. Everyone made speeches in class and we were critiqued both by her and the other students. Although I had listened to multiple preachers and other speakers, that class (and reading Broadus a little later) did much to prepare me for the pulpit. I still have problems listening to speakers that will not look at the congregation with eye to eye contact. Thanks again for prompting us to think about the importance of being aware of our part in the delivery of the good news.

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    • Thanks Tony for your reading and for your nice remarks. Someone with whom I didn’t interact in this article but who also has some good stuff is Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students.

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