Answer the 'So What?'

August 10th, 2016
This article is featured in the Does Preaching Matter? (Aug/Sep/Oct 2016) issue of Circuit Rider

The professor of my college preaching class told the story of an old preacher who came to realize that his preaching was having little impact. He recognized that while his preaching was generally interesting and delivered with conviction, he routinely failed to ask anything specific of his congregants. And so they seemed largely unchanged by his sermons. This was a rare and important insight. The preacher took a sheet of paper and wrote two words in huge letters across the page. He taped the paper to the top of the pulpit, where his sermon manuscript was meant to lay. Every week when he concluded his sermon and picked up his manuscript, he would see these two words, words that formed the question he felt he must be able to answer at the end of each sermon: so what?

Great speeches, sermons, and talks have a clear answer to the question “So what?” That answer is clear not only to the speaker but to the listeners as well. They should know what you are asking of them or have a clear idea of how they can and should respond to the message. The “So what?” is usually a specific call to action. In sales this is called asking for the sale or simply “the ask.” I sold women’s shoes in a high-end department store while in college. Women loved to come in and try on five, six, and sometimes seven pair of shoes. Then they’d say, “Thank you, I’m going to think about it.” This had happened over and over, when a seasoned salesman pulled me aside and told me, “You’ve got to ask for the sale. Whichever of the shoes she seemed most interested in, ask if you can ring them up for her. You’ll find when you do, she’ll often say yes. She’s waiting for you to ask.”

I often hear speeches or sermons that end without the speaker ever giving “the ask.” If the talk was good and compelling, then I want to do something about it, to take the next step or respond in some way. When no clear call to action is issued, I want to stand up and ask the preacher or speaker, “What do you want me to do in response to your message?”

This article is excerpted from the book Speaking Well: Essential Skills for Speakers, Leaders, and Preachers, from Abingdon Press.

Harry Emerson Fosdick was one of the great preachers of the first half of the twentieth century. He taught preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York, but he also taught speaking at Columbia University’s law school. He taught law school students and seminary students alike that when he preached he imagined the Riverside Church, where he served, was a courtroom and the congregation was the jury. He envisioned himself as a prosecuting attorney, or a defense attorney, making the best case he could for the sermon’s key theological, moral, or biblical idea. At the end of the message, he would give his closing arguments and pointedly ask the congregation for the verdict he was preaching toward. When I preach I often imagine the congregation in this way and seek to offer as persuasive a “case” and “closing argument” as possible. Then I ask them for a decision or course of action following the message. Fosdick’s example is helpful for secular speakers, too. If you hope to effect any sort of change as a result of your speaking, then it’s just as important for you to answer the “So what?”

Your speaking will have the greatest impact when you directly ask the audience to do something, to take a next step, or to make a change. Consider the purpose of your speech, talk, or sermon—the why, who, and what—and give your audience a meaningful way to respond.

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