Preaching Help From The Supreme Court . . . . — Ross Guberman

supreme court 1

Ross Guberman wrote an excellent book on argument — Point Made.  He also writes a daily blog on communication in the legal realm.  I became interested in him because for two reasons.

First, because this daily blog (which will at year’s end explain and quantify over 250 rhetorical / homiletical techniques and helps) flows out of a classical education in rhetorical theory.  Classical rhetorical theory assumes three areas of practice – Law, Politics, & Religion.

Second, because one of our children clerked for the Supreme Cout under Chief Justice Rehnquist, and is presently a practicing attorney at Wilmer-Hale in DC.  I have always had an interest in this profession and was accepted to law school while pursuing my Ph.D. at Ohio University.

In today’s blog, Guberman states that Associate Justice Kagan exemplifies a remarkable ability to write a Supreme Court opinion.


“Kagan’s opinion scores a whopping 100/100 in Flow, 100/100 in Punchiness, and 93/100 in Plain English.”


Well, what makes her such an effective “communicator?”  And can her ability offer some help to those in other professions (Politics & Religion)?


First of all, Guberman states . . . .

1. Light Is Right — she shuns wordy or legalistic language and favors its tight, modern equivalent.

However, not only is that part of Kagan’s “Light Is Right,” but Guberman also points to the fact that she begins many sentences with conjunctions!

“Starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions and other short words also goes a long way.”

What makes that interesting to speakers and preachers is that conjunctions are vital to public speaking (The conjunctions indicate the flow of thought and argument in a speech.) and the biblical arguments of Scripture (The book of Ephesians begins almost every sentence with a conjunction.)



2.    I Hear You — Kagan explains that when she writes an opinion, she tries to re-create what she used to do when she prepared to teach a law school class: imagining a smart audience that doesn’t know much about the topic.  It shows. In ways large and small, Kagan acknowledges her readers and even addresses them directly and conversationally.

Imagine a smart audience, Sunday morning after Sunday morning — twice on Sunday morning, evening, and then mid-week – that does not know much about the particular truth or principle you are going to develop.

For some, the pushback may be that the audience DOES know much about the topic.  After all, many have been believers for years, and most attend several Bible teaching preaching services a week.

However, if . . . .

the ministry is reaching out and seeing people come to Christ on a regular basis

the congregation reflects a broad range of spiritual growth — new believers to senior saints

the typical audience reflects our waining religious culture where fewer are well instructed in what the Scriptures teach

God’s people are not in the Scriptures daily, or in church consistently

the audience has not looked at the passage of Scripture which is being addressed in quite a while*

. . . . then the audience may not know much about the passage or topic being addressed.

Speakers and preachers may be assuming too much.  Notably, under this point, Guberman points to the fact that Kegan “repeats” for the sake of her audience.  This is absolutely necessary to give clarity and understanding to an audience which may not be familiar enough with the material AND/OR the point which is being made.

The flip side is, they may assume too little and spend an inordinate amount of time on what is obvious and well-known – yadda-yadda-yadda



3. Spice It Up — In its natural form, legal writing can sound like a dirge. Yet Kagan does what she can to spin a melody with a beat instead.

Likewise!  The curse of preaching is that the speaker is not heard because it is framed in a way that lends itself to boring!

The various rhetorical techniques which are being examined and quantified daily are designed to give some variety and color to speaking and preaching!

  • Short sentences
  • Vivid verbs
  • Internal repetition
  • Parallel structure**
  • Strategic punctuation
  • Variety in sentence structure




4. Let It Flow — How does Kagan achieve a flawless 100/100 Flow Index?  — Transitions, transitions, transitions. . . . you will find loads of light, varied, and logically interesting transitions:

  • “indeed”
  • “as a result”
  • “once again”
  • “say”
  • “after all”
  • “and that is true even when”
  • “and yet”
  • “to begin”
  • “but still”
  • “for that reason”
  • “in effect”
  • “in essence”
  • “in short”
  • “in a similar vein”
  • “that is not to deny that”
  • “of course”
  • “that is not the same as”
  • “and so”

“She also uses signposts like “first” and “next” to help guide the reader. And she uses many bridge transitions that link the start of one sentence to the point of the sentence before.”


Enough said!



5. Parenthetical Pleasures — I admit that “Let’s talk about explanatory parentheticals!” is not one of the top applause-getters in my workshops.”

Parenthetical thoughts are also part of public address, in that the purpose is the same.  While the speaker has to alert the audience verbally and vocally that “this” is parenthetical, it provides the necessary CLARITY for understanding and/or in a short form calls up the thought or a thought which helps drive the idea.

Guberman closes it out by saying . . . .

Kagan likes baseball—and she’s showing us here that legal writing is more like a sport than many people realize. Great legal writing, she suggests, is about performing a discrete number of tasks confidently and consistently. That hardly means it’s easy. But it does mean that it’s more science than art.


When Guberman makes the point that it is more science than art, he is making the same point when it comes to preaching.  Like any sport, one can improve their abilities.  There are clear, quantifiable methods one can employ which help a person communicated more effectively, which can be learned, and many are even unique to the art of public speaking.



*I am often reminded about the “pooling of ignorance” — I say that kindly — which occurs when a Bible teacher asks the class members what they think the passage is saying, what it means, their interpretation, etc. when the audience has never even considered the passage under consideration until just minutes before the reading of the passage.


**Guberman gives a useful example of that . . . .

And that difference in standard may have led

to a difference in result in this case.


But that examination should consider


not surface.


That principal purpose then becomes

the Act’s principal command.

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