This week I’ve been going through Cornelius Plantinga’s book Reading for Preaching, with the intent of seeing how reading applies, not just to pastors, but also leaders in general (See part 1 and part 2). In chapter three of the book, Plantinga discusses how reading should shape how we speak.
Leaders typically have to do a lot of communicating. While much of our speaking is impromptu, there are times when we are called to speak formally. It is here that I think Plantinga’s chapter helps us the most. So what should communicators to become more effective and how can they learn it from reading?
1. Practice Good Rhetorical Pitch
Plantinga means by this that we should learn how to use the right words for the right situation—not too formal nor too informal. Quoting Robert Jacks’s work Just Say the Word, communicators should write for the ear and not just the eye. We should practice speaking in a sort of, business casual, style which will captivate most people.
2. Practice Narrative Movement
Here, the author recommends that we read writers whose characters move (pg. 53). What does this mean? “Emotions, actions, character development, external circumstances—all of it moves in lively narrative” (pg. 53-54). So what should we do? We should learn how to become excellent storytellers—the kind that get our audience interested in what we say and keep them guessing.
3. Practice Speaking Less
The best writers are the ones who accomplish the most in the fewest amount of syllables. Plantinga encourages us to practice being economical with our words. I will admit that I struggle with this—not just as a writer but also a speaker. I tend to overexplain things. Not only does this fatigue my audience but it defeats the whole purpose of what I am trying to do: be heard! Read writers who write in economical fashion.
One of my favorite parts of this section are the four commandments Plantinga gives for speakers:
1)“Don’t drive your listeners nuts. If they cannot figure out what they are trying to say, they will get cranky.”
2)“Don’t waste your listeners’ time. Don’t make them wait while you unfold layers of padding.”
3)“Delight your listeners whenever you can. When they are delighted, they want to praise Jesus.”
4)“Follow from God’s command in Leviticus and Jesus’ repetition of it in the gospel, namely, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (pg. 59).
4. Practice Using Evocative Language
Good writers use language that “makes you ponder, makes you wonder, makes you yearn a little” (pg. 59). Reading good writing should improve you as a writer. They will help you learn how to turn a phrase. I can tell you that some of the best speakers I have ever heard were fantastic at making me think in different ways—they captivated me. I recently saw Andrew Peterson in concert and whenever he spoke, I heard from a man who had drank deeply from the well of Tolkien and Lewis. It reverberated not just in his music, but in normal speech. That is what reading evocative writing can do.
While all of this is well and good, Plantinga ends this chapter with an important reminder for all Christian communicators and leaders when he states, “All the powers of language the preacher picks up from listening and reading are means, not ends, and that the preacher is called not just to linguistic craft but to faithful proclamation of reconciling grace in Jesus Christ. The power and glory may happen, but not so much because the preacher wanted them to. They happen because of the mighty and mysterious work of the Holy Spirit.” (pg. 63).
In other words, all of our reading, writing and speaking is in service to the Gospel. That is where the heart of leadership lies—not in us and our abilities, but in God.
So tell me, what books have you found that have absolutely captivated you with their prose? Comment below!
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Daniel Pandolph is co-founder of Ministry Assistant Services and founder of Theologian of the Boss. He holds a BA in Christian Studies from North Greenville University and an MA in Religion from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.