Rhetoric & Homiletics: “Words Matter” – But Why?

potential kinetic energy The Strength “Potential Energy” of Word Choice

At times, speakers-preacher-teacher neglect to take the time to “work with words.”

“Words are cheap” — when it comes to public speaking —  but in a different sense.  Typically, that phrase means — “It is easier to say something than to do it.”  However, think of that phrase “homiletically.”

Too often, a preacher uses all too common-place words and wording.  The words and/or wording are well-anticipated by the audience, and they can almost finish the statement being made because of the “cheap words” being used . . . .

√  “We come to you in the name of Jesus.”  How about, “It is in your Son’s and our Saviour’s name we approach you with these prayers.”

√  “May the Lord add His blessing to the reading of the Word.”  How about, “It is the blessing which comes by hearing the words from the only book God has written that we seek by hearing its words once again and afresh.”

√  “Open your Bibles to the book of John, chapter 4.  Today we are looking at . . . .”  How about . . . .

“Here is where we often find ourselves when it comes to talking to others about Jesus.  They already have an objection in their minds, which is unknown to us, or their lifestyle choices have precluded them from hearing what we have to say because it conflicts with God’s truths.  That was the case with the woman at the well — on both fronts — her lifestyle choices, and her thinking about the legitimate place of worship. . . . .

Homiletical-Rheotircal precision, accuracy, clarity, and effectiveness are dependent on how we say it and on word choices.  Do we put the listeners’ attention into play as we speak?

Words matter!  The coinage of our ministry is words.  Pastors spend their lives traveling in the world of words — whether it be preaching, teaching, writing, funerals, counseling, weddings, announcements, business meetings, committees, and a good amount of small talk in the church aisles and foyer.

Just recently, I had a businessman call me about a speech he had been called upon to give before a group of supervisors in his division.  He had been helped on a previous occasion by an introductory analogy we called “The Grandfather Tree.” 1

As we were talking about the point he wanted to make, he stated, “I want to talk about the importance of building relationships.  I am a relationship builder.”

I said, hold it, don’t use the words “relationship builder.” — It sounds so trite!  You want to say that in a way that they haven’t heard it said.  A way that they will remember!  You want to call up an image in their minds.”

I went to the online “Power Thesaurus” and typed in “builder.”2

. I threw out some alternative words, and as I say . . . .

“Relationship Architect”
“Relationship Contractor”
“Relationship Handyman”

As I call up a number of different words (some that don’t work at all and I understood that, but that is what brainstorming is about), he says . . . .

“Handyman — Oh, that is good! “

I wanted to ask him, “Why did you say that?”  — because even though he himself recognized that it was good, he probably didn’t know why he thought that.

Now, the question is . . . . “Was he like his supervisors?

It is only “good” — if his response will be their response, only if he is representative of the listeners. 3

It was good because it was uncommon and fresh to his thinking, and if he reflects the thining of the supervisors, they too will respond to it as he did.

He said, “Oh, that’s good” because he himself felt the thought/image that was being put into play.  He knew that it would call up a unique and unusual image that will STICK in their thinking.

“Now, “run with it.  Run it out and repeat that thought several times and close with it at the end!”

What is the purpose and value of speaking-preaching-teaching if those who are there — voluntarily —  wanting to tap into your thinking —  do not remember what you said?


That is why . . . .

♦  it takes time to WORK THROUGH a message
♦  “word helps” are part of our library
♦  one speaker can be so effective, and another so bland
♦  some speakers never get the attention of the audience
♦  some listeners walk away with little to nothing
♦  sermon preparation takes work
♦  preaching is more than “exposing” the truth of the passage
♦  preaching is not only theological but rhetorical
♦  speakers are different
♦  some speakers are really effective at communicating – They work with words!



1. A speech by John Davies, featured as the speech of the week, titled “Slinky, Walnut Trees, and Innovation.”

“Thank you. People always ask about the walnut trees we grow at the farm. As those of you know who grow trees, it takes a very long time to grow a very great tree. This is the reason that walnut trees are sometimes described as the “Grandfather’s Tree.” The Grandfather plants them, and the grandchildren enjoy them. From a leadership perspective, we often plant trees under whose shade we will never sit. That’s an appropriate theme for our conversation here.

In many ways, the story of innovation in Northwest Indiana is very much like planting a walnut tree. The seed was planted by Ivy Tech NW and our community partners. And it’s beginning to take root. Who knows how big this sapling will grow? But I think it is important to know that it is growing.

Link: https://www.vsotd.com/issue/2009-3/slinkys-walnut-trees-innovation


2.  https://www.powerthesaurus.org/builder/synonyms

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3. I have listened to speakers who don’t represent their listeners in the words they used or ideas they communicate  — at all.  They make statements that reveal that they are strange, odd, peculiar, even weird.  It was good — in their thinking — but not to the audience.  That is why it takes a “speech coach” or an experienced speaker-pastor-teacher to preview a message and say. . . .

“Don’t say that, or say that that way. It comes across as, or calls up a negative, unproductive, unnecessary idea that . . . “



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