Are You Sleeping? Rabbis and the Art of Public Speaking

Posted on: February 20th, 2009 by Hayim Herring

When I was a congregational rabbi, after a few years, I started adhering to one rule rigorously when giving sermons: never speak long enough for people to fall asleep! There were a few other rules which I followed, too.  Giving a brilliant sermon every week was mission impossible for me.  However, it was always possible to find some new dimension of Torah in the broadest sense that would engage people with a new idea, a new way of framing an issue, advocating for a cause which was significant or helping people find personal relevance in Jewish practice. 

Equally important, regardless of the topic, I had the extremely good fortune of having several models of outstanding communicators from whom I learned the art of public speaking and a good friend in the congregation who generously volunteered his time to shred my words and reconstitute them in a way that would grab and hold people’s attention. In a prior life, he had been a journalist and helped me realize that communicating big ideas simply was essential to my rabbinate.

The Talmud (AZ 35b) asks, “To what is a scholar to be compared? To a vial of fragrant ointment. When its cover is removed, the fragrance of its ointment is diffused. When it is covered, its fragrance is concealed.” My experience with many rabbis when it comes to public speaking has been that they are like “the vial with the cover on.” They do have a lot of wisdom to share, but the way they publicly communicate gets in the way of their ideas. They develop bad speaking habits in rabbinical school and often don’t receive help once they are in the congregation.

This is really inexcusable.  People in the congregation, whether members or guests, will form opinions about Judaism based on what they hear during a rabbi’s sermon. Rabbis are given a unique opportunity: they can inspire involvement in Jewish life, or discourage it, by how they communicate their messages.

I’m going to recommend one book which I recently finished reading, entitled Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. They offer a six-point formula communicating ideas that can be extremely helpful for public speaking:

  • Simplicity
  • Unexpectedness
  • Concreteness
  • Credibility
  • Emotions
  • Stories

You’ll note that if you look at the first letter of each of these six points, they almost spell the word, success. There are many additional ways in which rabbis and become successful communicators of Jewish wisdom and tradition.  What I’d like to hear from you is your recommendations on how rabbis can communicate with greater impact, especially in an age when attention spans seem to have shortened.  And, if you are a rabbi and have your own story about how you learn to become a better communicator, please be sure to share that as well!

Rabbi Hayim Herring

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