Lessons from the royal wedding sermon

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Ishbel Smith on what all public speakers can learn from Bishop Michael Curry's royal wedding sermon

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21st May 2018 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

I wonder if Kate Middleton was as surprised at being upstaged by her sister’s dress on her wedding day as Meghan Markle is now by the media frenzy over a 64-year-old preacher from Chicago? If Twitter is anything to go by (and it often shouldn’t be), the sermon preached by Bishop Michael Curry captured more attention than Meghan's impeccably stylish, painstakingly considered and fantastically sewn gown. 

He proved once more what people have known since talk began, that a great speech has a power beyond its words to inspire conversation, connection and maybe even a little change. 

Yet if CBS is to be believed, when they asked the bishop how he had prepared, he said he was “just going to show up”. If you watch how often he looked at his iPad notes (apparently never) and how far he strayed from the strict timing protocol, you may be tempted to disbelieve him. 

Ishbel Smith

Ishbel Smith

But, whether carefully prepared or not, Bishop Michael delivered a lesson in how to convey a message that mattered – that really, really mattered – to him and one that he wanted to matter to his audience.  So, what points can those who also care about their message pick up from this cassocked sensation?  Unlike the Bishop, this blog is limited in time and space, but here are a few pointers for your consideration.

Firstly, he stuck to one of the basic tenants of oral delivery – that it is as much about the way it is said as what is said. A speech is a physical act – spoken, heard and seen. Speakers must utilise their body and their voice when they want people to actively listen to them. Varity in vocal pitch, volume and power gives aural hooks to the listeners to latch onto. Using your body as a visual tool to emphasise important points through hand gestures, movement and (most importantly) eye contact helps keep that two-way communication real.

Now, not everyone will speak like the bishop – and you would probably get some very odd looks if you tried – but you do need to speak a little more magnified than when you chat to someone one to one. One tip – watch how well the bishop uses the power of the smile – disarming, empowering and effective. It’s good to have the smile in your presentational toolbox.

Secondly, the bishop recognised that even with a longer time than scheduled, there was only space for one central message. Ten percent of his wordcount was “power” or “love”. Deftly weaving a dazzling array of speech techniques (alliteration, repetition, analogy etc.) he used them all to emphasise his one key takeaway – the power of love. He remembered that a speech isn’t about telling people something – it is about persuading them of it.   

Three times he said: “if you do not believe me, then” – compelling listeners to engage by remembering a time they fell in love or in response to his retelling the song as slaves as a tale of empowerment of love, not disenfranchisement by hate. He nearly resisted the temptation many have when they are given their one moment in the spotlight – to try to say too many things in too little time (his ending maybe suffering from too long a list of uses for fire). But he got away with it by following the mantra: if you have one key message, make sure people hear it. 

Thirdly, the experienced pastor was prepared to take risks. He will not be surprised that alongside the Tweets of praise, there are as many saying it was too loud, too long and just too much (indeed, if the memes are right, these thoughts were shared by some who sat right in front of him). He accepted that if he was seeking to engage people’s emotions, he may provoke negative responses. It was a strategic gamble – but the courage of his own convictions combined with his oratory skills meant he remained a credible advocate for the message he wished to deliver. 

And in that lies the final and most important secret to his success. The Bishop believed in what he was saying and remained loyal to himself as he delivered it. In the CBS interview, he concluded by saying: “I’ll never forget what my daddy told me – he said just always be who you really are. Don’t pretend to be someone else”. 

Whether you liked his sermon or not, few will have doubted that the speaker meant every word he said. He did not bend to what was expected of him – instead, he delivered something of himself in a way that worked for him and thereby may have an impact on others. Whether that worked or not can be judged by the way his message has been heard around the world. 

Ishbel Smith is the founder of communications consultancy Heart In Mouth. Focusing on the third sector, Ishbel also works with the Church of Scotland and New College, University of Edinburgh coaching their ministerial candidates in presentation and sermon skills.