The difference between a good speech and a great speech is language,” states Dorothy Leeds, a popular speaker and facilitator of communication seminars. By “language” she means “the way you use simple, everyday language.”

Applied to the task of preaching, we can paraphrase her statement to say: “The difference between a good sermon and a great sermon is the way we use simple, everyday language. Verbal keys. That’s what we are talking about.

Content is only part of the issue in preaching. The other significant part is the delivery of the sermon. In the delivery of the sermon, we need to be concerned about verbal keys, vocal keys, and visual keys. Let’s consider verbal keys in this article.

Key # 1: ACTIVATE. We should avoid as much as we can the passive voice. The active voice, which features verbs, makes a clearer, more direct, and more powerful impact. The passive voice, which features verbs of being and participles, impacts us with much less force. We should use “I run” instead of “I am running” and “I saw” instead of “It was observed.”

Key # 2: ELIMINATE. We need to cut out unnecessary words and phrases. For example, we should avoid using multiple modifiers. The use of “very” and “definitely” sometimes have the opposite effect we want to have. Instead of strengthening the description, these modifiers actually weaken it. In addition, we should take out unnecessary phrases such as “kind of” or “sort of” or “perhaps” or “to be honest with you” or “I think.”

Key # 3: SITUATE. We must not only say the right words. We must also say them at the right time. We must situate our words in the places where they will have the most impact. Dorothy Leeds mentions the doctrine of primacy and recency, people’s tendency to remember beginnings and endings. Because of this tendency, we should put the most crucial information at the beginning and end of each sentence or each paragraph or each sermon. The debate continues as to whether primacy or recency is the most important, that is, whether people remember the first thing said or the last thing said. In either case, where we put our words makes a difference.

Key # 4: STIMULATE. We should use words that will touch a person’s emotions, words that will prick a person’s conscience, words that will activate a person’s mind, words that will call his will to action – words that stimulate. Words have more than their basic meaning. They have emotional content as well. The emotional impact of words will differ in different environments. Sensitivity to the audience will enable us to select the words that will be most emotive for them.

Consider these keys as you prepare your sermon this week. Remember, the verbal quality of your message will determine, to a large extent, whether it is a good sermon or a great sermon. What other factors are involved? We need to also be concerned about vocal keys — how we use our voice. We’ll consider that in a future article.