Are personal stories appropriate? A look at storytelling through the example of preaching.

A couple days ago I read a Facebook post from a high school classmate of mine, aspiring pastor/author Carson Clark, (who currently blogs at Musings of a Hardlining Moderate) on the topic of telling stories from the pulpit about family members.




I don’t think pastors should use their family in their sermon analogies. I don’t think pastors should passive-aggressively admonish their family members from the pulpit. I just plain don’t think pastors should bring up their family while preaching.

I found this line of thinking intriguing for many reasons.

#1. If you are a member of a regular church-attending household, I would guess that the number one place you take part in listening to public speaking are sermons at your local place of worship. (The obvious exceptions I can think of are those who attend regular lectures in academic settings and either conduct or attend a large amount of training sessions, but these forms of communication are conducted in a different way than most “speeches”.) (And for my readers who do not attend regular worship services, where are you most likely to encounter public speaking in your everyday life? Let me know in the comments section.)

#2. Carson’s stated preference is the exact opposite advice I am receiving from the public speakers that have been the focus of my recent renewed study in public speaking (most notably Craig Valentine, Darren LaCroix and Ryan Avery). I am told that speeches need to be more personal. Speeches need to have stories. And the most effective stories are ones that are relatable to your audience, and everyone has experience with family relations.

A couple caveats:

  • Carson is obviously talking about sermons. While I am moderately educated in public speaking, I have no formal education in homiletics. There is probably an argument that sermons should be treated differently than other forms of public speaking, but I tend not to. While there are obvious adjustments in a sermon that need to be made in a sermon based on your audience and message, I tend to critique a sermon in the same way I judge any secular oratory.
  • I have absolutely no argument with Carson’s second sentence on passive-aggressive admonishments. However, this is an area where I have little experience considering that my home church in French Lake, Minnesota has generally been so small that it could not afford a pastor unless he was semi-retired. So therefore none of my pastors growing up had any children living at home that they could tell stories about.
  • Carson is stating a preference, and he is perfectly entitled to prefer any type of sermon that likes. While I am much more concerned that areas such as structure and organization are handled properly, if push came to shove, I would probably prefer that type of style that Carson has said he prefers. But I believe that most of the different types of sermons can be successful if they handled properly. This is not an attack on Carson. Given his work with the written word, I believe he will also be successful with the spoken word. It is just his comment on the use of familial stories in one of the more common public speaking venues has gotten me thinking.

As I have stated previously, my MO throughout high school public speaking was to jam as much research and trivia into a speech as possible. But now I am told that storytelling is the key way that I will be able to connect with my audience.

I don’t like telling stories about myself. While, there is certainly a fair amount of fear in exposing myself to the world, it is mainly that I do not find myself very interesting. One of my biggest priorities is to learn how to take my own trove of experiences and be able to turn those into ways to connect with an audience.

But I also worry about telling stories about my family. I know Karla isn’t extremely comfortable with me mentioning her in my speeches (and I understand the irony that she is likely not going to be comfortable with me mentioning her in a blog post). During practice of my most recent entry in the Toastmasters International Speech contest, she joked that my next speech has to be titled “My Wife is Not a Crazy Cat Person”. I am constantly concerned that my stories are going to offend or embarrass the people I am closest to.

However it is important for your audience to be able to connect with you. Hence one of the common commandments of sales, “The customer does care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I am very sympathetic to the fact that personal stories can often sound self-serving and pointless, but when stories are done well the audience is better able to absorb your information because they know you “care” and have a basis for your message.

Pastors are given the challenge of preaching their message on a weekly basis. While I do not believe that sharing personal stories is the only or even the best way to make sure that your congregation is able to take in that message, I believe it is certainly an invaluable tool that pastors should have at their disposal. Stories have their risk like all tools that can be used in public speaking, which is why it is important for pastors and all speakers to properly hone their message.

Image credit: Peter aka anemoneprojectors, 2013

What issues do you run into when telling personal stories in your public speaking?

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One comment on “Are personal stories appropriate? A look at storytelling through the example of preaching.
  1. […] have written extensively (here, here, and here) on my need to improve my storytelling and ability to stay on message during my speeches. While I […]

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