A solid and compelling thesis statement is the one simple act that will improve most speeches. A thesis sentences is a one sentence summary of the content of the speech. For most of us, getting to a good thesis sentence isn’t something we succeed at on the first try. Instead, writing a good thesis sentence is like playing with play dough. You mold, reshape and mold again. There are three criteria for effective thesis sentences. You might think of these as the three ways a speaker shapes the thesis sentence.
Independently Informative (or persuasive, or instructional, or inspirational, or entertaining). There are five general purposes for a public speech–to inform, instruct, persuade, inspire or entertain. The thesis should aim at accomplishing the most appropriate purpose for the occasion. For an informative speech, for example, you should clearly say what you want your audience to understand. The thesis should complete the sentence, “If you remember nothing else from my presentation remember . . . .”
Audience oriented. The thesis sentence should be the place where the audience and topic meet. Speeches do not address topics, they address audiences. The thesis should include the audience intended. In a speech on attention deficit disorder, a speaker might have written an independently informative thesis as, “Attention deficit disorder’s effects can be reduced through dietary changes.” Adding the audience orientation to the thesis would focus on who this speech is for. Is it for adults dealing with their own ADD? Parents dealing with their children? After this rewrite, the speaker might say, “Adults managing their own Attention Deficit Disorder can reduce ADD’s effects through simple dietary changes.”
Orally Deliverable. A speaker should learn to reverse the normal process of composition. When we learn to write, we are taught to write and read aloud what we have written. For speech purposes, however, it is important to speak to write rather than to write to speak. That is, the speaker should talk through their thesis, structural “tag lines” and transitions. These are frequently the statements a speaker will write verbatim in an otherwise extemporaneous (outlined) speech. When a person writes to speak, the written statements look right but sound clumsy. That’s because there are significant differences between good writing and good speaking. When speaking to write, we tend to condense, remove modifiers, and simplify. Consider the following question–do you need every modifier (adjectives and adverbs)? Do you need every prepositional phrase? If you have a conjunction, do you need it? Sometimes in the orientation to the topic–which is part 2 of 4 in an introduction, a speaker will introduce the abbreviations they will use throughout the speech. This can simplify the structure of the thesis. So, our rewritten thesis now with oral deliverablity in mind is, “Adults with ADD can reduce distraction by making changes to their diet.” OR “ADD adults can change their diet and reduce their distractions.” In both cases, I have either a modifier or a conjunction but, as a speaker I deemed them necessary. I’m not trying to suggest we live by rigid rules saying “no adjectives” or “no conjunctions” but to look at these and determine what’s necessary. The important thing is to say it aloud different ways until it sounds right and then to write down what you’ve said.
When a speaker takes the time write a compelling thesis sentence and then disciplines themselves to build the speech around that compelling thesis statement, it provides the speech with clarity, focus and coherence. If you take the time to complete the “if you remember nothing else . . . ” sentence for yourself, it’s improves your audience’s chances of actually remembering what you said.
Because of gaps in information, we tend to fill in blanks from other texts. We do this with the four gospels and we do this with Paul’s letters and Acts. The problem in this approach is that we may fail to see what a particular writer is emphasizing. The gaps are our gaps based on our agendas. By filling in the gaps, we satisfy our questions. But we may at the same time miss one of the important aspects stressed by the author.
An example: The conversion of Paul is narrated vividly in Acts 9 and retold in Acts 22. The details as recounted in Acts are never repeated in Paul’s letters. This is not to suggest that Acts is inaccurate or to be disregarded. But, the way Paul’s conversion story is constructed in Acts serves the overall theological agenda of Acts. Whereas the way Paul speaks of his own conversion serves his own theological agenda. If we bracket what we understand of Paul’s conversion from Acts and seek to understand Paul’s conversion on Paul’s own terms, new insights develop.
Beverly Roberts Gaventa has a helpful chapter on Paul in her book From Darkness to Light. When we look at Paul’s conversion only in terms of Paul’s letters we see that he focuses less on the event of his conversion and more on the contrast from before and after. There was a change in Paul’s understanding, “Paul’s refjection of things he once regarded as important stems from his conversion which forced him to acknowledge that God had indeed acted through those whom Paul regarded as unworthy” (p. 39). Further, she writes that focusing on Paul on Paul’s terms stresses the reality of on-going transformation, “While some real and significant change occurs for believers [in the moment of conversion], that change is never finished or complete” (p. 45). Learning to take biblical writers on their own terms is not absolute nor is it to say that atomizing is best. Rather, it is an exercise that has been helpful to me in seeing insights in the text that I have otherwise overlooked because my mind was busy filling in my gaps.
These days we live pretty transparent lives. We use social media to narrate just about everything about ourselves. Even outside of technology, we interact with a lot of people. We let ourselves be known in a hundred different ways every day. The people who interact with us most frequently could describe our career history and goals, our favorite sports teams and athletes, our favorite movies and actors, our families and friendships, and our politics. It seems like more and more people are going out of their way to tell the world how they feel about politics.
For those of use who are Christian, though, here’s the question–so what? We were instructed by Christ to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19). We were not commissioned to go and make democrats or republicans, fiscal conservatives or social activists, sports enthusiasts or coupon shoppers. We were called by Jesus Christ to make disciples. So ask yourself, “how well do the people in my life know what I think about how disciples get made?”
Here are four questions, I think every established, mature Christian should be able to answer. More importantly, I believe that mature Christians should verbalize the answers to these four questions often enough that the people who know them best know how they would answer them. The people who know you best should know your answers to these questions better than they know your politics, career history or goals, hobbies, favorite things and even how your family is doing (gasp).
1. How did you come to have a relationship with Jesus Christ?
2. What have been the major moments of growth or change for you in your relationship with Jesus Christ?
3. What would you say to someone who asks, “How can I have a relationship with Jesus Christ?”
4. If a person were to come to faith in Christ and asked you to mentor them in their faith, how would their lives be changed? What would be the attitudes and practices of faithfulness they would hear you advocate and see you demonstrate most consistently? What does a growing Disciple of Jesus Christ live like according to you?
Several weeks ago I was in a conversation with another minister who said to me, “You reach for scripture a lot.” I thought it was an odd thing to say especially from one minister to another. I didn’t have a good response for my colleague. What I wished I had been able to say is, “I don’t reach for scripture. Scripture reaches for me.” That’s not sarcasm. Christian discipleship at its best is to have the sort of intimacy with scripture that you think about your life in terms of scripture.
One of the scriptures that reaches for me is Psalm 24:7, “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in.”
When I’m feeling particularly low and feeling sorry for myself, this text reaches for me. When it feels like the Christians around me are dismissing their own capacity, this text reaches for me. When a church dismisses its capacity to serve with significance, this text reaches for me.
This text was spoken to the threshold of the temple perhaps prayed during the rebuilding of the temple after the exile. I personalize it. We are the gates. We sometimes our heads fall and our confidence fails and we need to hear someone say, “Lift up your heads.”
We need the reminders that we are more powerful than we give ourselves credit for. We are indeed mightier than we thinke we are. “Lift up your heads you mighty gates.”
Most importantly this text reaches for me to remind me that we are the threshold through which Christ enters and is visible I the world today. As we used to say to one another a lot, “You are the only scripture some people may ever read.” We are the only Christ some people may ever see. “Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.”
Lift up your heads Christians you are the mighty threshold of The Lord.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife told me I was miserable all the time. Her comment made me angry. At the end of the day we would ask each other, “How was your day?” and I would answer with honesty. It wasn’t my fault that the days had been difficult recently. I felt like she was denying my true feelings and telling me that she didn’t want to hear how I felt. I felt completely shut down.
Out of anger, I decided I would take the passive aggressive approach. I dreamed up a way to annoy the crap out of her. Whenever she asked about my day, my feelings, my thoughts, I would exaggerate how great things had been. “I’m doing great.” “Things are wonderful.” “Nothing is wrong.” I was a pretty good actor in High School, I was born to play this role. And, I succeeded. I annoyed the crap out of her. She’d ask, I’d respond, she’d roll her eyes. It was not one of my finer moments in family communication.
But two other things began to happen. First, I started to review the past few months of my life and had to be honest that Lori was right. I was making choices to be miserable. I knew the end of the day question was coming and I was trying to win an implicit contest–who’s had the worst day. I was fixating on the negative. I was telling myself that I was helpless in the face of the problems I encountered, incompetent, resigned to my fate, and powerless. By winning “Who’s had the worst day” competition, I was losing. I was losing my joy and losing happiness with my family.
People very close to us really were having the worst days of their lives. In some ways, I was internalizing their grief or anxiety. That sounds noble. But it’s really not. We cannot absorb another person’s sorrow the way a paper towel absorbs a spill. It doesn’t work that way. My choice to be miserable wasn’t helping.
The other thing that happened took me completely by surprise. The more I faked being happy, the happier I actually felt. About a year ago, Amy Cuddy delivered a TED Talk that reported findings of research about the impact of power poses on people’s body chemistry. She studid body posture and hormones and found that standing like your confident actually raises the hormones related to confidence. Toward the end of the talk she simply said “Fake it till you become it.” I certainly saw that beginning to take shape as I “faked” acting happy.
I wrote Lori a text a couple of Sundays ago that said, “‘Fake it till you make it’ is going to sound fake at the beginning.” It was a pretty lame attempt at an apology and an admission that she was right all rolled up together. Since then we’ve had a couple of open, face-to-face conversations which is a much better way to communicate.
So, my wife was right about me. I hate to admit that. No, I mean. I love admitting that. It’s the most wonderful thing in the world. It’s awesome when my wife offers and insightful observations about my tendencies to focus on the negative. I love it. It’s wonderful. My wife was right, Again.