Jump directly to the Content Jump directly to the Content

The Vulnerable Act of Public Speaking

Find your voice—and keep it.

Voice is more than simply speaking; it engages the whole self—mind, body, spirit, your true self. Using another category, such as this one, helps us access elements of identity and authenticity in a different way and can become another set of practical strategies for going about living into your own sense of truth. How we understand voice can be lodged in four categories: theological, personal, practical, and communal.

Theological, Personal, Meaningful

Voice is a theological concept because utterance is directly connected to how God expresses God’s own self. God spoke, and in doing so God revealed God’s self. Speech is revelation. Voice is intimately tied to theological revelation. In ministry, our speaking is not just our own but for the sake of God’s own expression. We speak, in part, for God speaks through us. God counts on us to emit the words of God and the Word of God so that others might hear the promises of God in their own lives. Moreover, your voice and God’s voice intersect in your expression, God’s Word and words are interpreted in your utterance.

For example, when you read Scripture aloud, that act alone is an act of interpretation. The words you emphasize—your tone, timbre, pitch, vocal variety, volume, and expressions—all communicate meaning. In that reading, you are communicating what is important to you about that Scripture passage. You are communicating what matters to you, at least for this time, place, and purpose. You are communicating, in part, who you are theologically because of what you have chosen to emphasize and what you have decided to give less import.

As a result, voice is very personal. What you have to say, how you say it, your vocabulary, your accent, your intonation, when you speak up, and when you don’t reveal your identity and your character. Your voice gives oral expression to what is deep in your soul, what is important to you. To believe in your voice, you have to believe in your identity and your own experience and believe that it deserves to be spoken out loud, it needs to be heard, and it needs to be heard by others. Believing in your voice means remembering who you are, which sometimes will demand an intentional reclaiming of your identity.

When Your Voice Is Silenced

To have a sense of how personal voice really is, think about when, how, and by whom your voice may have been silenced. What were the circumstances? What was the situation? What were you prevented from saying? How did you feel? When you are not allowed to speak, when you are shut up, it feels as if your light has been extinguished.

When you realize how personal voice it, it shapes significantly how you do ministry. For example it shapes how you interpret Scripture. When you know what it feels like to be silenced, then you notice those who have been silenced in the biblical texts. You notice who gets to talk and who doesn’t. You take an interpretive stance that is committed to allowing the silenced to be heard. You give voice to those who so desperately wish to speak.

Your voice also shapes how you do pastoral care. Who in your congregation do you sense wants to speak? Who has something to contribute, but has not figured out how to let others know? How can you help them articulate their theology, opinions, and faith? Because of who you are, a woman in ministry, a woman in leadership in the church, you will have other women—and even men—who will come to you to help them find their voice. When you are able to utter your truth, you automatically invite others to imagine the same. You invite them to envisage that this is possible for them. But they will need your help. You will need to accompany them, to give voice to who they are.

Public Speaking for Women

We can think about voice and identity from a very practical perspective. Your voice is, quite literally, your voice—how you express yourself verbally. This becomes a critical point for women in ministry because of the physical nature of women’s voices. Women’s voices tend to be higher pitched and harder to hear. It will be essential to assess the nature of your voice and whether or not it reflects the power of your own person. You will undoubtedly receive comments on your voice that, while critical of its timbre or pitch, more often than not originate from a resistance to what it means to listen to a woman’s expression of God’s word. The concern is located less in the person’s hearing challenges and more in the person’s ability to hear the ways in which a woman’s voice is now another source of hearing God speak.

The practical issues around voice are crucial, and reflecting on the concrete components of voice must begin with a general knowledge about the essentials of public speaking. As a leader, you are a public figure. You will be called to speak in public on a regular basis in situations that include, but are not limited to, preaching. In these moments, you are communicating your power as a woman in ministry. If your general presence as a communicator, which includes your voice and your image, is not given attention, it makes it far more difficult to communicate your power and to convince people of your power in other ministry settings. Furthermore, your power will be acknowledged if there is a strong correlation between who you are as public figure in public settings and how you present yourself in more private and individual moments of ministry.

Five Misconceptions

While we should be able to assume that a fear of public speaking is less for those who answer a call to ministry, it nevertheless still brings with it its challenges separate from the fear. The challenges coalesce around identifiable yet false perceptions that surface in public speaking and that need to be named because these misguided assumptions can lead to the questioning of one’s ability to carry out the call to ministry.

The first perception that the act of public speaking exposes is the sense of needing to be perfect; yet we must realize that perfection is not possible.

The second needed change in perception is the move from “I can’t tolerate any anxiety or discomfort when I am speaking in front of people,” to “I can stand discomfort and it will pass.” One significant issue with regard to this second perception is for you to know how your body exhibits discomfort and stress. For example, unintentional gestures, sweaty palms, and dry mouth are all physical manifestations of anxiety. You need to know what your body does, and practice countermeasures to deter their potential effect on your presentation.

A third perception is the unrealistic claim that a negative review is the end of the world. Although unfortunate and uncomfortable, you will survive a negative review.

A fourth perception says, “If I fail then I am a failure.” The reality, of course, is that failure at one task does not make you a failure in others.

The fifth and final untrue perception that arises in public speaking connects a poor evaluation rating with worthlessness. Yet, even if you are given a poor evaluation, that does not mean that you have to lose your self-esteem or confidence.

It is important to notice that each of these misguided perceptions directly connects to one’s identity, one’s core being. This is because public speaking is an extraordinary act of vulnerability. Ministry involves a public leader, a public voice, called upon to share in multiple public settings the truth of faith and how that truth is embodied in you. Moments of public speaking are unquestionably moments of power, both owned and perceived. These moments must be managed for the power they have, the power that you can claim in them, and the power that they can carry over into your ministry.

Basic public speaking effectiveness is centered in five areas: volume, fluency, vocal variety, clarity, and physical image. Tending these five essential aspects of public speaking is necessary because how you speak is directly connected to your credibility and believability. To live into your power as a woman in ministry necessitates that you are fully aware of the dimensions of public speaking and what a difference each makes for your effectiveness as a public figure.

Karoline M. Lewis (Ph.D. Emory University), holds the Alvin N. Rogness Chair of Homiletics at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. She is a regularly featured presenter and preacher at the Festival of Homiletics and a frequent contributor for numerous Christian journals and online resources, including the popular website WorkingPreacher.org where she also co-hosts the site’s weekly podcast, Sermon Brainwave, and authors the site’s weekly column, Dear Working Preacher. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. This article is excerpted from her book, She: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Women in Ministry, and is used with permission from Abingdon Press.

July11, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Recent Posts

When Your Calling Is Challenged
As hardships come, you have 1 of 3 options.
What Is Calling?
Defining this “super-spiritual” word
Cultivate Your Calling in Each Stage of Life
Angie Ward discusses cultivating leadership amid ever-changing responsibilities.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
How to know whether to leave or stay in your ministry context.

Follow us


free newsletters:

Most Popular Posts

Does the Bible Really Say I Can’t Teach Men?The Strong Power in Every WomanWhen Church Leaders Mistreat YouHow Should the Church Handle Adultery?