Tips for Khateebs: 11 Ways to Become a Highly Effective Public Speaker

I have been giving Friday sermons (khutbah) for over a decade now for various mosques in my area. I recently came across an article in Arabic about tips on public speaking. I found them very helpful and can relate them to my own personal experience, so I thought I’d share them here on my blog. I am not translating word-for-word but just summarizing the concepts mentioned and also filling in my own version of the details based on my experience. I am also writing them in the context of khateebs giving sermons in mosques on Fridays, but the points mentioned are pertinent for any public speaking situation.

There are eleven tips every public speaker should do to become an effective speaker:

1 – Practice Makes Perfect

Unless you are among those few gifted individuals with innate natural public speaking capabilities, it is a skill that needs to be developed over time just like any other skill. This is why it is important to practice the speech before delivery to such an extent that it becomes natural during the actual presentation. Don’t become disheartened if you fall flat during the actual delivery but see it as a motivation to become better. The more speeches you give, the better and more natural you will become. Just remember to learn from your mistakes and grow from them.

I usually do not give multiple sermons within a month at the same location but prefer to move around. This is very helpful to me, because if I fall flat one week, then I try to do the same sermon better the following week in another location. This helps me focus on my weak points and try to figure out why I bombed the first time and it’s usually due to lack of practicing the speech before delivery.

2 – Quality of Delivery

How the message is delivered to the audience matters just as much as the research done to prepare it. You can put in all the time you want to prepare the lecture, however, if you do not deliver it in the right manner, it could be all for nothing. The speaker should assure proper pronunciation of words, avoid bad grammar, and use suitable body language in order to get the listeners’ attention.

There is another aspect which is very important and something I struggle with even today. The message should be delivered in a slow and clear pace. This does not mean so slow that it bores the listeners, but it should be slow enough that the audience can intellectually digest the information, especially those for whom English is not their first language. This is extremely difficult to do for natural fast talkers like myself. I am constantly flagged by listeners and Friday sermon organizers of speaking too fast. It is something I still need to work on!

3 – Tone of Voice

Your tone of voice plays a big role in whether listeners fall asleep or drift away into daydreams or not. In order to retain attention, you should raise or lower your tone of voice depending on the type of message you are delivering. For example, if something exciting is being discussed, then your voice should rise. If something sad is being discussed, then you voice should become more calm and lowered. The audience should be able to tell from your tone the mood of the topic.

One of the most common reasons people become disinterested and bored during speeches is because the speaker speaks with a monotone. Give the audience something to be excited about through variations in pitch of your voice.

4 – Appearance of the Speaker

It is not OK to do a Friday sermon in your pajamas. Good appearance communicates to the audience that you are a professional who wants to be taken seriously and not someone who is being made to stand before the audience because the organizers could not find anyone else to do the sermon that week. If the audience sense that you look as if you don’t belong there, they will mentally check out. People will take those whom they respect far more seriously, therefore, putting on a neat, suitable, and professional appearance will do exactly that…it will make them respect you. In addition, they will also consider you a good example.

I recently ordered a beautifully wrapped turban from Turkey with a nice long thawb to go along with it specifically to be worn for Friday sermons. I have been using it every time I give a sermon for months now and I can confidentially say that there is now a very different type of vibe from the audience. They are more attentive, show respect even before I get on the mic, and seem more in tune with my message.

5 – Confidence When Speaking

You must exhibit confidence in whatever you’re saying. You need to deliver the message in a way that shows the audience that the topic is well researched and that you know exactly what you’re talking about. In other words, you must believe in what you’re saying. If you give the audience the impression that you are iffy about your statements or lack evidence in your claims, then they will not take you seriously. Everything about you as the speaker should exhibit confidence and mastery of the topic. Confidence in your tone, voice, message, and body language. You have to make people believe what you’re saying and they will not do that if you yourself seem doubtful.

6 – Avoiding Unfamiliar Topics

It is important to avoid topics which you are either unfamiliar with or have very weak understanding on. This is because you will not be able to build a convincing case for/against it. You run the risk of muddling the information and presenting it in a confusing style. It could lead the listeners to lose respect and dignity for you. You should focus on discussing only topics you are well familiar with or at least have spent a decent time researching. Again, if listeners feel you are speaking about something you lack understanding on or evidence, then they will not be motivated nor interested in what you have to say.

7 – Keeping the Audience in Mind

When you speak, you must adjust the delivery of your message to fit the listeners’ level. For example, you would not explain why we worship Allah to kids the same you would to adults. Similarly, appeal to cultural references during a speech may work for one audience but not another. You have to figure out what is best and most suitable for your audience and also the level of rhetoric you must use.

I am often less formal when giving the sermon to college kids at a university than I am in a mosque because the audience is different. Whenever I am invited to give a talk in a new place, I always ask for more details about the community and what type of people are expected to be in the audience. This information helps me mentally prepare for a suitable delivery catered for that particular audience.

8 – Practicing What You Preach

It is very important to practice what you preach, otherwise, you are being hypocritical. It is a type of deception and threatens your credibility. How can a stingy person stand in front of the people and advise them to be generous towards the poor?! You will find that your message will come out more passionate, sincere, and effective when it is something you actually practice in your own life because you will be speaking from the heart. And I hope it will also be blessed by Allah because of the sincerity and truthfulness embedded in it.

9 – Avoiding Repetitions

Constantly repeating the same point over and over again could become boring for the listeners and even get annoying. Repetition may be useful as a rhetorical tool if done correctly, but as a general rule, you should not keep repeating the same thing over and over again. You can try other ways of re-emphasizing the same concept if need be, such as, story telling, mentioning different but related themes, giving examples, etc.

10 – Evoking Good Emotions

It is not a good thing to evoke negative attitudes in the audience by naming and insulting specific people or causing a stir in the community. The message should end with hope, piety, doing one’s best, trusting in Allah, and other positive emotions. The audience should leave the sermon feeling joy, wonder, hope, and eager to be better versions of themselves. They should not leave feeling angry, insulted, ridiculed, or attacked.

11 – Solid Preparation

Some speakers prefer to write their whole speech down and read from it during the presentation, others memorize their speeches, and some just note down the main points on paper and improvise by filling in the details during presentation. Everyone has their own comfort zone and they should do whatever is easy for them. But whatever method you are comfortable with, you must make sure that you are prepared. It does not look good on the speaker if he seems confused, lost, or unprepared for the sermon. You will quickly lose interest of the audience, so it is important to review the speech, multiple times if need be, before presentation to assure that you are able to follow a coherent progressive structure of the points you want to make.

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