Preaching Pointers by David Epstein

Lesson #1 | Lesson #2 | Lesson #3 | Lesson #4 | Lesson #5 | Lesson #6

Your Words Can be Effective—

If You Plan Beforehand

I was talking to a Jewish educator and the conversation turned to Harry Potter. We were discussing Passover and I mentioned that I was trying to figure out how to do a Harry Potter Seder. (It never happened.)

He said that he believed that J. K. Rowling, the author, has made a fool of modern educators, Jewish and otherwise. Before Harry Potter, the prevailing thought was that a particular lesson could not be more than twelve minutes or the teacher would lose the attention of the students. Children today do not have a long attention span—what with TV, video games, MTV, etc.

Well, J. K. Rowling proved them all wrong as millions of children from 9 to 90 sat and read entire 300 to 800 page books over a weekend—and then reread them over and over again so that no one would know more than they did at school on the following Monday.

The conclusion one has to reach is that when material is properly presented, children and adults will stay attentive.

What does this say for preaching?

I am fortunate to live in a city with many, synagogues. I have a treasure of speakers from whom to choose each and every week.

Some, a few, keep me listening on the edge of my seat for an hour or more. With others, I sit behind a tall person for obvious reasons.

After a lot of questioning and conversations with the exciting speakers, a few points come into focus about solid sermons:

  1. Ample time set aside for preparation.
  2.  Carefully written out, researched and struggled over.
  3. Read and re-read until almost memorized.
  4. Reduced to a small set of notes or an index card.
  5. Presented “live,” not read, so that eye contact and movement are possible—and so that side comments and slight diversions can be made.
  6. The one thing never done is to “wing” a sermon. (Everyone knows what you are doing.)

I have had the pleasure of hearing newly restored digital sermons given by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. They were unbelievably powerful and meaningful.

One Rabbi commented that these kinds of sermons could not be given today—but he never explained why.

So I ask you—why not?


Coaching Lesson #1

Do Not Use Them When Speaking!

A contraction is made up of two words joined together to save time. However, when we look closely at a contraction, it is the strongest word of the two that is shortened. In doing so, the strongest word is weakened.

“I do not believe,” becomes, “I don’t believe.”

“We will take action,” becomes, “We’ll take action.”

“It is not the right thing to do,” becomes “It’s not the right thing to do,” or “It isn’t the right thing to do.”

“You will benefit,” becomes, “You’ll benefit.”

See, (hear) the difference?

Notice how the power of the message is weakened when using a contraction. Using a contraction may sound more “casual,” but it takes away the strength of your point.

In reviewing sermons of Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen S. Wise, I found only rare uses of contractions. This was one way they added power to their sermons.

Try this for the next few months. It is not easy – at first.

Avoid contractions. It is just a small point, but it will add greatly to the strength of your sermons.


Coaching Lesson #2

Pronouns. Change Them!

Publisher’s Note: This is the easiest technique to use and see immediate results. Try this with your next few sermons. You will feel the difference immediately with response.

Most Rabbis and Preachers understand that only a certain percentage of their congregations “get the message” of any sermon.

While listening to conversations after services I am often surprised over how many listeners did not “get it.”

Often times I discover that not only did they not “get it,” but they “got ” exactly the opposite of what was said.

This is a burden that every Preacher must bear.

However, I would like to make one suggestion that will create a higher level of “take-away” with your sermons:

Carefully review, and change a number of the pronouns you use.

In reading and listening to many, many sermons, I find that I am often not sure, by the words used, that the speaker/writer is even Jewish.

The pronouns used are: The Jewish People, The Ancient Jews, The Torah, The Talmud, The Rabbis, etc.

I also hear: Tradition says, Judaism says, Jewish History teaches, etc. You can add many more examples yourself.

How much better would your sermons sound if you simply changed to first person pronouns: We Jews, Our Ancestors, Our Torah, Our Talmud, Our Early Rabbis, etc.

How about: Our Jewish Tradition says, Our Rabbis teach, Our Torah says, etc. Note the difference?

Even if your message is not properly heard or understood, the listeners will “take away” the feelings that they— and you—belong to something—Judaism and the Jewish People.

Think about pronouns this year as you prepare for the High Holy Days or for your weekly sermon or drash.

Proud, possessive pronouns can make a long lasting impression


Coaching Lesson #3

Beliefs versus Feelings

A Rabbinic sermon is meant to convey the beliefs of Judaism or your own beliefs about a particular subject. In either case, as the Preacher, you are the advocate selling these beliefs.

Beliefs have to do with one’s value system: what is correct; what is proper; what is the right way to handle a particular situation.

As a Rabbi, you are preaching beliefs, preaching values, and preaching Jewish values.

Sometime in the 1960s, perhaps with the advent of the flower children, feelings became an important factor in discourse.

Feelings are emotions; and feelings can be fleeting. One can be happy one moment and sad a few minutes later. The blues can become exhilaration in a flash. Feelings come and feeling go.

With the heavy focus on feelings a new phrase snuck into our language, one that, when used, weakens the message of a good sermon. The phrase is, “I feel that… .” “I feel that” often replaces, “I believe.”

However, “I feel that,” makes a much weaker statement.

As soon as your listener hears the word “feel,” your belief become less solid, more fleeting, like a real feeling.

Your beliefs, what you are attempting to teach, then stand on shifting sand rather than on bedrock.

“I believe Judaism has good answers to your problem,” is a lot stronger than, “I feel that Judaism has good answers to your problem.”

“I believe our Torah is relevant today,” is much stronger than, “I feel that the Torah is relevant today.”

Say these sentences out loud.

Can you hear the difference?

Take the phrase, “feel that,” and delete it from your sermon vocabulary.

Identify a belief as a belief, and a feeling as a feeling.

Your preaching and teaching will be far more effective.


Coaching Lesson #4

Replace Introductory Phrases . . . . .
With a Pause.

As I read, edit and listen to sermons, I identify many, many introductory phrases—often just sounding like “filler” for the time between the last sentence and the beginning of an anecdote or story.


Instead of saying:

“I want to tell you an old Hassidic story about a Rabbi Eliezer who walked into his shul one morning . . . ”

Simply pause, Lean forward slowly. Turn a bit to one side . . . .

And start, in a softer tone:

“A Rabbi Eliezer walked in to his shul one morning . . . ”

Replacing these filler words with a pause—a short moment of silence— and perhaps a slight shift of your body is a far more effective transition.

Speaking time does not have to fill the full time of your sermon.

A well placed pause is a very powerful speaking tool.


Coaching Lesson #5

A Basic Rule of Public Discourse

Over 80 years ago Toastmasters International created their famous rule of public speaking:

• Tell ‘em what you are going to tell ‘em.
• Tell it to ‘em.
• Then, tell ‘em what you have told ‘em.

It was a powerful rule when created. It is a powerful rule today.

Often, when I listen to, or read a sermon, it takes me three or four minutes to understand what the sermon is going to be about. This is enough time for my mind to wander. By then you have lost me.

Always start your sermon or drash with a short sentence telling us what is coming. It will perk us up and grab our attention.

“Tonight I am going to discuss tzedakah.”

“This morning we will explore the relationship between Abraham and Sarah.”

(Starting with a joke, especially if not directly related to the topic, stopped among professional public speakers in the ’90s.)

The last sentence of the sermon/drash should sum up what you have told us.

“We learn, therefore, that tzedakah should be an important part of our Jewish lives.”

“Now we better understand the stresses in interactions between husband and wife.”

  1. You will have then opened by telling us what to expect.
  2. You will have told us in some detail.
  3. And, finally, you will have told us—what you taught us.


Coaching Lesson #6

Join a Toastmasters Group

Whether you are a competent speaker or even a great speaker, I strongly urge you to find and join a local Toastmasters Club.

Toastmasters will help you improve even more—while meeting wonderful people and having a really good time.

I have brought two Conservative Rabbis into my own Toastmasters Group. Both have 20 years of pulpit experience. Both tell me they wish they had the Toastmasters experience twenty years ago. It has made a great difference in their effectiveness as a speaker. (And they both have a wonderful time at our meetings.)

Toastmasters—now in its 84th year—is dedicated solely to helping its members be better speakers and make better presentations.

Many of the great speakers in America have come out of—or improved through—their membership in Toastmasters International.

Meetings are one or two hours long and groups tend to meet weekly or bi-weekly.

In a large city you will have a choice of many groups. In a smaller city there is usually only one. Most look forward to visitors.

Membership is only a few dollars per year and supplies you with workbooks and time-tested materials you will wish you had when you were a student Rabbi.

Ask around your congregation or check:  for the Toastmasters meetings in your area.