Attention, preachers and teachers! Find a spare hour, grab the Hobnobs, and take a gander at Speeches that Shook the World, currently on BBC iPlayer (link below). Even if it’s just having it on while you do the ironing, I reckon you’ll find it a refreshing investment. The programme sees poet Simon Armitage take it upon himself to handpick a selection of speeches “that provoked radical change, surprised pundits or shocked listeners”, and prod them with the question ‘what makes the perfect speech?’ It’s rammed full of interesting examples. Some, like MLK and Blair, you’ll probably be familiar with, but there are many others which maybe you won’t.


Communication matters. To my mind, anyone who’s involved in public mass communication of any kind should be seeking to hone their craft. And when our message is Scripture, then surely it’s all the more important that we’re communicating effectively? Sure, we don’t compromise on truth, and we don’t place our confidence in techniques & gimics to change hearts and save lives. But we do want to make sure we’re doing all we can as communicators to get across this most precious of messages.

So here’s my 5 ‘take-home’s from Speeches that Shook the World:

1. Be crystal clear on what your message is. So here’s the thing: the greatest speeches are unmistakable in what they’re about. And that’s gotta start with me as the speaker. That means not just understanding the information I’m presenting, but also having clarity on the action and emotional response that I’m seeking to urge. One of the speech-writers on the programme said that he’ll always ask himself, “What do I want the people to know? What do I want them to feel? What do I want them to do?”. Once you’ve done your hard work in understanding the Bible passage, how would you answer those questions? And don’t think about a script until you have.

2. Know who you’re seeking to communicate to. Lots of the speeches that Armitage highlighted, demonstrated a self-awareness of the particular moment into which they were being given. The speakers knew where they were speaking, when they were speaking and to whom they were speaking. We talk about having a talk in our backpocket, or reheating an oldie, but actually no sermon should be entirely the same as another. My understanding of a passage may not have changed, but how I’m bringing it to bear on this particular group of people’s lives will change. Likewise, the language I use, the pictures I paint, and the way I engage will surely all vary for that particular ‘moment’.

3. Show people how inconceivable it is not to respond. It was striking to hear Colonel Tim Collins’ commenting on the speech he gave to the Royal Irish Regiment on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. He spoke of wanting to persuade his troops that not acting was actually a far worse prospect than the battle ahead, despite all its inevitable cost. They had to move forward. Change may be hard, but it’s better than remaining where you are. Pastor Bill Hybels says something similar to this: it’s not enough for us to give people a vision of what God’s word is calling them towards; we also need to show people how staying where they are is just not an option. Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.

4. Ensure you’re constantly climbing up and down the Ladder of Abstraction. Armitage interviewed communications expert Stuart Pearson, who made the point that good speeches have a clear big idea (see point 1!). But because these ideas are often quite abstract in essence, we need to ensure that they are constantly being grounded in practical reality. Pearson calls this climbing up and down the ladder of abstraction. Those who have to preach regularly will know the temptation to go short on ‘application’. Yes, it probably was important to explain the context of the Assyrian-Judean crisis in Isaiah 7, or how Paul’s use of that word traces throughout 1 Corinthians. But, and I say this as much to myself, don’t stop there! If I’ve not demonstrated to people how this Scripture changes us, whether in mind, heart, or deed, then surely I may as well have not said anything. Whether it be practical examples, testimonies of others, or my own personal response, either way, I need to get the ladder out and make it real to people.

5. Don’t forget Delivery. Armitage quotes the Greek orator Demosthenes who, when asked to name the three most important aspects of rhetoric, answered “delivery, delivery, delivery”. Perhaps for those of us who are more likely to carefully craft our words on our computer for hours beforehand, this is a particularly helpful reminder. A spoken message can never have ‘neutral delivery’, and maybe I can lose sight of that. That doesn’t mean we all have to be Steve Jobs or John Piper. That doesn’t mean we fake it, putting on a show. But preaching is not simply reciting or explaining. It’s warning and encouraging and urging and calling and envisioning and exhorting, and many other things besides. And the content of this preaching is nothing less than knowledge of the glorious Triune God. So surely we should seek to deliver our message in a way that both demonstrates the significance of what we’re saying, as well as our own Spirit-compelled emotional engagement with it.

Ok. That’s where it’s got me thinking. What do you think? Have I just lost the plot? If you’ve seen the show yourself, what did you learn from it? Let me know below.

You can watch Speeches that Shook the World on iPlayer here until Tuesday 19th November.

5 Take Homes from BBC4's 'Speeches that Shook the World'…