The key to a great sermon? Drink plenty of water and tell a story says voice coach

Trainee Church of Scotland ministers are urged to learn poetry, keep scrap books and wear loose clothing. That is the advice of elocution expert Richard Ellis, who claims great sermons are given by those people who drink lots of water, learn how to breathe properly, don’t smoke and know how to tell a good story.

Richard Ellis
Richard Ellis

The 71-year-old, who was taught how to play golf by the children’s author Enid Blyton on her golf course in Dorset, said the character Rev I.M Jolly, created by comedian Ricki Fulton, was a “wonderful teaching aid” in his early career to explain how NOT to deliver a sermon.

Mr Ellis has trained hundreds of budding preachers in the art of speech-making over the last 35 years.

One of his predecessors in the post, which is known as the Fulton Lectureship, was the Scots character actor Alastair Sim, who went on to star in the St Trinian’s films.

Mr Ellis is leaving his role at Edinburgh University’s School of Divinity (New College) due to a move south to Lincoln. His career has seen him watch his students in action at more than 800 church services – the equivalent of never missing a Sunday sermon for 16 years.

Give ministers a better voice but not "too much drama"

Reflecting on his time at New College since he started in 1981 while sporting tousled hair and a beard, Mr Ellis said: “It has been wonderful. I planned to stay for three years but it has been a very interesting job.

Mr Ellis, who won a Bible reading prize at school, studied at the Guildhall School of Speech and Drama.

“At my interview with Professor Duncan Forrester at New College, he leant across the table and said: “Mr Ellis we’re very keen to do something about the ‘Church of Scotland voice’.”

“There was then a very marked tendency to speak in a very modular, up and down sort of way.

“Then another minister said ‘we don’t want too much drama however Mr Ellis’

“I think they were a bit worried that this guy with a beard and longish brown hair was going to revolutionise the Church in some dramatic fashion.”

“I quickly discovered many ministers had been taught how to convey meaning through a range of sweeping arm movements and hand gestures.

“That may have been useful when addressing very large congregations, but times have changed.

“There may be fewer people in the pews now, but often the minister is addressing more people who are watching the service online through a webcam so the techniques have to be different.”

Rev I M Jolly was an example of poor preaching

Commenting on the sheer number of services he has watched and given feedback on over the years, Mr Ellis said: “It’s a lot. I was asked to hear everyone in New College twice in their three years of training and then my role expanded to include the candidates from Glasgow and St Andrews.

“My main role was to enhance the voice that they had and to give them coaching on things like sustaining eye contact with the listeners, rhythm and pace, storytelling and gestures.

“I also advised on the structure of the sermon, how they might organise the material, how they might use humour and visual aids. I never met Rikki Fulton, but I must say his Rev I.M.Jolly was a wonderful teaching aid.

“When I started in 1981, Rev I.M Jolly was at the height of his popularity and when I used to play clips to the candidates they immediately got the reference.

“But I would not dream of using them now because no one under 75 would appreciate it. Besides it is irrelevant because there are no longer people in the Church who sound like Rev I.M Jolly to mock and satirise.”

"I also introduced recording candidates in action so they could watch themselves back, which was a great help.

“The enthusiasm and commitment of the candidates has been truly wonderful - the quality is generally good; there’s real commitment.”

Richard Ellis
Richard Ellis in his younger days.

Take a lesson from President Obama

Recalling the most memorable sermon he heard in church, Mr Ellis said: “During the height of the Cold War in 1983, the candidate at Gorgie Parish Church in Edinburgh gave an apocalyptic sermon on the nuclear winter which was then being discussed.

“He got up and there were rumbles of thunder in the background.

“When he went up to the pulpit there was a flash of lightning and all the lights went out except for a small glow over the pulpit.

“He started this sermon with the lightning and the thunder playing about around him - It was absolutely enthralling.”

Mr Ellis hails US President Barack Obama as one of the greatest orators of modern times.

“He’s a master at the use of pause,” said Mr Ellis.

“If you want to pose a rhetorical question in your sermon you have to pause.”