Preacher Voice

We’ve had some interesting talks with our oldest son lately about his foray into the realm of voice-overs.

Voice-overs are the words spoken by off-screen voices, be they in movie trailers, television ads, narrative in film or TV, or dialogue in animation.

One thing they preach in voice-over classes is authenticity. A common mistake for newbies trying to break into the profession is they try to imitate a professional voice and sound like one of those voices you hear in commercials or trailers. The experts warn that you don’t get far in the voice-over profession by imitating other people. Your chances are far better when you find your own voice, the voice that is really you, and get comfortable with it.

I think it works the same way for anyone who dares stick his or her neck out into the public forum, and that certainly includes preachers.

My wife and I have had a number of discussions over the years about “preacher voice.” It is a voice peculiar to pastors who, once they step into the pulpit, take on an entirely different voice than they use in normal life. In extreme cases, the change in voice is so startling you can hardly believe you’re listening to the same person who shakes your hand after the service.

Preacher voice is basically an imitation of a generic, perhaps even Platonic, preacher. It is louder, more dramatic, more authoritative, more formal, more stilted, and more resonant− with an unusual cadence.

Granted, respect for the audience requires a delivery somewhat more polished than ordinary conversation. The difference is this: I’m more careful of what I wear when speaking in public than I am when sitting on the patio talking to neighbors. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to show up Sunday morning in silk stockings, ruffs and a powered wig. I can be myself in sweats and a t-shirt, in a sport coat and tie or even in a robe and stole. I can’t be myself in a 17th century Louis XIV outfit.

To me, preacher voice is similar to donning silk, ruffs, and powder. The formality does not enhance the message; it gets in the way. It changes me from a preacher into a caricature of a preacher.

The proclaimer of God’s word is not a set piece hauled out of the Reformation closet or the Billy Graham wardrobe and dusted off. The sermon is not an oration performed by a character. Few pastors have the dramatic skills and training to pull that off. In order to be effective, the proclaimer of the Gospel has to be a real, authentic person in whom what you see is what you get. A person who speaks honestly and from the heart.

I don’t use many gestures when I preach. I sometimes wish I could, because I know how effective they can be. But I almost never use my hands when I speak in normal conversation. Were I to use them frequently during a sermon, my congregation wouldn’t know who was up there in that pulpit.

We say in seminary that the gospel is spread by hearing. But it is more likely to be heard when the message is delivered by a real person who believes the message with all his or her heart and presents it with passion and insight, without pretending to be anything other than who he or she is.