Holding Off The Audience
“Through violence, you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate.”*
– Martin Luther King Jr.
Year after year I have listened to speeches in January-February by speakers who were given the task of commemorating the work of a great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King. Most of the time the speaker was an African-American preacher.
I have often said that some of the best speakers and preachers have been and are black preachers. Today’s example is just one clear example. I first heard him in 2013 at a community gathering in New Jersey commemorating Dr. King.
Dr. Soaries is an outstanding speaker-preacher who is worthy of your time and attention, not only because of the content of his message but also because of his rhetorical abilities.
As Soaries begins his message, he builds great interest and attention by “holding off the audience.”
It is common for a speech or message to begin the same boring way. In the secular world, the speaker steps to the podium and says “Hello” and then thanks the various notable people in attendance, and his/her pleasure for being there and having the opportunity. After listening to many such beginnings, my mind shifts into “idle” and waits for the speech to actually begin — “Good evening . . . . I am delighted to be here tonight – yadda – yadda – yadda”.
With pastors, it is usually the religious version of the same general approach — “Let’s turn to the book of _____” followed by some general contextual information which may (and may not be) be related to the passage, spoken with little vocal variety, which all says and sounds like — “We are just letting the car warm up before we put it into drive.”
After a speech actually begins an audience will give you as a speaker several minutes and decide whether they want to stay engaged and focused. Like it or not, a church audience – who has probably heard more public speaking than any other group of people – will make an unconscious or conscious decision on how focused they will be.
A speaker or preacher bears some of the responsibility to capture and maintain the interest and attention of an audience. That was true during Bible days and is true today. Proof?
Just read Paul’s speech on Mars Hill.
Listen to the words of Paul when he says, “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences.”
Why is the word “Behold” used throughout the Scriptures (To turn your mind, eyes, or attention to what is being said)?
Read the messages of Peter in the book of Acts.
The Scriptures repeatedly state that Jesus captured the minds of his listeners.
What is the purpose of using “rhetorical questions” (as found in the Bible and/or used by biblical preachers and prophets) if not to engage the audience?
Parables are creatively designed and by their designed engage an audience.
Apollos was an eloquent man!
We bear some of the responsibility for creating interest, making the truth memorable, and maintaining attention — and we know that even while we may want to say otherwise – i.e., “I just lay out the truths of the Bible, it is up to God’s people to listen and apply.”
We know we bear some responsibility and we recognize such everytime we are the audience and now we are listening to a boring speaker-preacher.
Dr. Soaries captures the attention and maintains the interest of the audience by what we could call “holding off the audience.” Soaries is laying out the “surroundings of Dr. King.” He states that you must understand the times during which King fought for civil rights in America.
Here is the beginning of his speech.
(link to audio — full video link at bottom)
When – when you hear the words of Dr. King.
And when you see the images of Dr. King and hear the stories about Dr. King.
Your understanding is developed.
Necessarily in response to what you’ve heard and what you’ve seen.
And his work speaks for itself.
But it is often –the surroundings of Dr. King – more so than the work of Dr. King that describes him.
More than anything else.
For I grew up in northern New Jersey – a town outside of New York.
My grandmother was from Virginia and every time there was a family occurrence in Virginia – she would get my aunt – my uncles or someone to drive for from New Jersey to Virginia
and we’d help her pack her clothes
We’d help or put her dresses in a suitcase
— back in those days we had those big hard suitcases — you’d break your toe even if they were empty – and they – they fell on your toe – I mean those big Samsonite suitcases
and so Grandma needed help from our grand – from her grandchildren and carrying those suitcases to the car
we put a big round of hats and those big round hat boxes -you know – they had some hats Dr. Woods – only – – only – worn in black churches – you know – we don’t wear hats like that much – omy mom – my grandmother’s hats were so wide you couldn’t sit behind her in church and see what was going on.
So we put these big wide hats in these big round hat boxes and we put the suitcase in the trunk and then we’d put the hat box in the trunk and then we lined up as children just hugging grandma goodbye
She was going south to Virginia.
And every time my grandmother went south – after we hugged her
she’d get in the car and
she’d have a shoe box under her arm. (clapping) — Sister Mason had a shoe box – too – under her arm.
And – I – I – I – I couldn’t figure that out
I couldn’t figure it out
because I had helped my grandmother
my cousins and I helped grandma pack her suitcase
and we knew that the shoes were in the suitcase.
And I was eight and nine and ten years old – and I had in the back of my mind this question
If the shoes were in the suitcase — What on earth is in the shoe box?
But I couldn’t ask.
You see when we when we were your age – you could ask old people why they did what they did.
And if we did we’d lose our teeth.
I mean young folk never ask grown folk – WHY
And I wanted – I wanted to ask my grandmother WHY she had a shoe box under her arm every time she went to Virginia because I saw the shoes in the suitcase.
So one day I decided I couldn’t take it anymore.
She was on the way to Virginia
We had helped to pack in the bedroom
I heard her feet in the kitchen
And I saw the shoe box on her dresser
I said, this is my chance.
And while I listen to her feet move around the kitchen
I decided to sneak over to that shoe box and gently lift the lid
because I had to know for myself —
What is in this shoe box?
and when I looked inside I was more confused than I was before I saw it
I’ve never been on a trip to Virginia
I’ve never been in the family car.
I’ve never taken this long ride from New Jersey to Virginia.
so I didn’t know what was in the shoe box
and when I looked inside I saw – four pieces of fried chicken.
Some of you all say – Amen.
In between two slices of white bread.
And lined up around the edges of this shoe box were boiled eggs — standing at attention like West Point cadets – just standing there.
And I heard my grandmother’s feet come back towards the bedroom
I slammed the lid on
I went over to the bed and
I stood there trying to hold it in.
She was putting on her dress, and she was getting ready to go
and I said to myself — I will risk losing my life. But I’ve got to ask my grandmother
why she got that chicken in that shoe box.
So I moved all the way to the other side of the room.
So if she swung, I could duck.
And I took my life in my hands and.
The next few minutes of my life defined — the rest of my life.
I said – Grandmother – every time you go to Virginia
You get in the car
You pack your clothes
You have a shoe box under your arm
I now know what’s in that shoe box
I looked inside and saw some fried chicken and between two slices of white bread
Why do you carry a shoe box with chicken in it every time you go to Virginia.
And she sat me on the side of a bed — it was around 1959.
And what she said to me helped me understand why in 2013 we would pack ourselves into Faith Baptist Church to thank God for Dr. King
Her answer explained to me why so many members from my congregation would be excited in 1999 to have a pastor who was sworn in to be the first black man who served as a constitutional officer of the state of New Jersey.
Her answer explained to me what Rome Bennett was trying to explain in his book “Before the Mayflower.”
What Alex Haley was trying to teach us in his epic work Roots
What she said to me explained to me why – today – we must continue to struggle and fight – to make sure everybody’s treated right.
She sat on the side of her bed – young people – she said you know Buster [my nickname Buster – he was going to say it — he was trying to be respectful – My friends call me Buster = the I.R.S. calls me Deforest you know]
She said – Buster every time we go to Virginia we carry your shoe box with – with our food
In fact there was a peanut butter jar – next to the shoe box – without peanut butter – it had Kool-Aid with the top and screwed on tightly – and there was Kool-Aid inside the peanut butter jar.
She said – we carry our food and our drink because when we drive from New Jersey to Virginia, it takes six hours to get there. And even if we eat before we – leave – we’re hungry before we arrive.
And when we get hungry we can’t stop at the diners to get a hamburger or chicken sandwich.
There were no Mc Donalds or Burger Kings – you could have it your way back then.
She said – When we get hungry – since no one will serve us – along the way.
We have to have our lunch – we have our sandwiches – we have our chicken in the shoe box.
And we put our Kool-Aid – in a container with the top that screws on so it won’t spill out
and without even stopping – while we’re riding along the highway we eat our chicken and our eggs and we drink our juice – so that when we get to Virginia we’re full.
That’s why we carry chicken sandwiches in our shoe boxes.
But before she allowed me to get up and leave she said to me – but things won’t always be that way . . . .
That is a clear and powerful example of “holding off an audience” and thereby continually creating interest in about what is to be said and the point which is yet to be made!
Likewise, there are ways to begin a message, make a point, and/or conclude which draws interest and attention. However, it requires intent and takes work.
*What a powerful sentence by Martin Luther King Jr. — The structure is — Verb & person, verb & the trait. Now that you understand the structure, you can duplicate the verbal rhetorical technique using other words.