by Mike Adkins
I hope you’re better than I when it comes to this, but I am majorly guilty of critiquing speakers when I listen as a part of their audience. Conference emcees, my senior pastor, the President . . . no one is safe! I’ll elbow my neighbors and share snide comments about the speaker’s performance. As if I’m some professional!
Being in the audience and being up front are two very different places. Everyone is a backseat speaker, but very few actually take the wheel. For those of us who do “drive the car” now and then, how do we rise above the faults we’re so quick to point out in other speakers? Knowing what the errors are is great, but to quote the great philosopher GI Joe, “Knowing is half the battle” (emphasis mine). Here are four suggestions to help you fight the second half of that battle—overcoming those errors:

Read Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a must read for communicators. The contents of this book have tremendous practicalities for both the writing and the presenting of your material. Using the acronym S.U.C.C.E.S, the authors ask: Is your material simple? Can you present it in some unexpected manner? Is it concrete? Credible? Does it contain some emotional element(s)? How can you leverage a story to illustrate your points? All of these elements increase the “stickiness” of what you teach. In other words, they aid in retention, and that’s exactly what we’re going for! There are no tricks or manipulations involved here either. It’s simply that these elements are attention-grabbing, attention-retaining, and engaging. If I can’t accomplish that much when I speak, I’m wasting my breath and possibly the audience’s time!

Practice, practice, practice.

In 2002, Allen Iverson, a professional basketball player, was asked about his practice habits by an interviewer, and his response got a lot of attention: “We’re sitting here, and I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we’re talking about practice . . . we’re not even talking about the game, when it actually matters, we’re talking about practice.”
Don’t get it twisted: Practice completely and absolutely matters, and that is just as true for the inexperienced speaker as it is for the veteran. As speakers, we need to be wary of being overconfident in our ability to present well. Not one among us can confidently say that  practice has no effect on our abilities as communicators.
For a long time, our junior highers got the short end of the stick because they received my teaching first. I would teach in that space and then make speaking edits (add this, cut that bit out, refine the analogy, etc.) before giving the same material to the senior highers an hour later; invariably the senior high teaching was tighter and better received. I finally came to my senses and invested more time on the front end. I quit treating my junior high time as the practice run-through, and the results have been worth every second. And the content has not been the only beneficiary of the extra work. With a run-through or two, I find I’m not so dependent upon my notes, so I’m more free to move around and engage the students with eye contact. Those seem like small changes, but I challenge you to watch a speaker who remains rooted behind a podium and doesn’t once look up from his notes and then tell me how minor those changes really are.
In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell states, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” Get that practice time in as often as you can and in any way that you can.

Listen to yourself! Or even better, watch yourself!

We record our talks primarily so that parents can always be on top of what we’re teaching and so students who miss a week don’t miss a beat, but I routinely listen to myself speak from those recordings, too. This is an excellent practice. I realize how often I repeat the same thing a dozen times, create painfully long silences, say “um,” and even how monotonously I might have delivered the most revolutionary material known to humankind! I’ve winced. I’ve cringed. I’ve face-palmed. But I’ve also improved. Put yourself in your audience and see if you’d listen to you.
Watching yourself teach is a whole new experience, too. Sometimes what we do non-verbally can distract from what we are trying to communicate verbally. What is your facial expression communicating? Do you, like Ricky Bobby of Talladega Nights fame, have no idea what to do with your hands? I wear a microphone that rests overtop of my ear, and I am constantly fiddling with it and readjusting it while I speak. I have to cut that out! What adjustments can you make?

Seek out constructive criticism.

Oftentimes, we are not as self-aware when we teach as we’d like to think we are. Even if you listen to and watch yourself, you may still be blind to some of your quirks, ticks, or plain old bad habits. Empower a few individuals you trust to point out behaviors that you may need to improve. They are more likely to pick up on the things you won’t. For instance, our worship leader used to constantly check to make sure his fly was up when addressing the congregation before his wife brought it to his attention!
A friend once began a talk by saying, “If I’m not any good, at least you’re that much closer to lunch when I’m done!” That line works well . . . once. If you speak with any kind of regularity, you need to constantly seek improvement, and it’s going to take intentionality. You will not accidentally get better. But the investment will be well worth it. You will build confidence in your ability that will come through during your delivery, and your audience will be able to see that you’re not phoning it in or winging it. That investment in yourself quickly becomes an investment in your audience, and I promise you both will be grateful for it.
Mike Adkins graduated from the University of West Georgia in 2009 with a degree in Psychology. He has been in youth ministry for a decade, serving as an intern for two years at Cornerstone UMC in Newnan, Ga., before stepping into full time ministry at Shepherd of the Hills UMC in Douglasville, Ga. He is currently at Forest Hills UMC in Macon, Ga., where he has served as the youth minister for four years. He has unhealthy levels of love for reading, survival methodology, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.