Brandon Vogt

How to Give a Talk like Fulton Sheen

Fulton Sheen

Although most people cite Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham as the greatest preachers of the twentieth century, Fulton Sheen is right there with them, in my book. Talk to anyone who heard him on TV or the radio and they’ll be quick to agree. They’ll gush over his magnetism, aura, tone, and rhythm, all of which were captivating—just stream some of his talks online and you’ll see.

Anyone who speaks publicly to large groups—teachers, politicians, priests, deacons—can learn a lot from Archbishop Sheen, who died on this date (December 9) in 1979.

Sheen never wrote a book on preaching. However, thanks to an inquisitive nun, we do have some of his advice.

In 1979, while in a restaurant waiting for guests to arrive, Sister Ann Edward asked Archbishop Sheen for a few hints about presenting a talk. As he spoke, she furiously took notes, adding numbers when she typed up the results. Here are the tips he gave:

1. Voice tone: Plato recalls tone three or four days after hearing a talk. It’s the tonal quality that strikes an audience.

2. When listening to a speaker, count the words on each breath. Indicate each word by a dash, and each pause by a stroke. If it’s -/-/, it’s dull, flat and stale.

3. Avoid a pulpit voice. Be natural. As Disraeli said, “There’s no index of character as sure as voice.”

4. Learn the value of pauses. Never for their own sake, but for emphasis or to allow the thought to sink into the audience. They need time for digestion.

5. A whisper can have more value than a shout. Macaulay said of Pitt, “Even a whisper of his was heard in the remotest corner of the House of Commons.”

6. If there’s a commotion, disturbance, or latecomers, do not raise the voice; lower it and the audience will try to catch the whisper.

7. The audience is infallible in judging if a voice is artificial or natural.

8. Let a first sentence be interesting. Do not state the obvious, e.g. “Today we celebrate a 25th anniversary.”

9. Only nervous speakers need water.

10. If brevity is the soul of wit, the secret of oratory is “know when to quit.”

11. Before beginning, pause a few moments. As a mother cannot forget the child of her womb, we can’t forget the child of our brain.

12. Start with a low voice.

13. Audience needs a come-on; feel superior, not timid or obsequious.

14. To begin with, have a story where you came out second best.

1. Talk naturally.
2. Plead vehemently
3. Whisper confidently.
4. Appeal plaintively.
5. Proclaim distinctly.
6. Pray constantly.

— Thomas C. Reeves, America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2001), pp. 381-382.

(Image credit: A Catholic Life)

  • Erek Cyr

    Amazing to see all the various talents out there. Nobody can be Bishop Sheen, but then again, no one can be You! Be inspired, but: 1) Talk naturally

  • Pete

    He forgot one thing – you have to be Archbishop Sheen! That is indeed a big thing to leave out.

  • Pete

    He forgot one thing – you have to be Archbishop Sheen! That is indeed a big thing to leave out.

  • Thank you for sharing. Great tips Brandon. Number 15 should be “Wear a cape” 😉

    Taylor Marshall

    • Thanks, Taylor! I said a quick prayer for you dissertation defense and was thrilled to hear you passed.

      Your success forces me to assume that you donned a cape yourself…

  • KyPerson

    Very interesting, but honestly – I think that public speaking is an inborn talent. Poor speakers can be taught to be good, but great ones are born

    • I don’t know if I *totally* agree with that. Fulton Sheen himself was a terrible speaker as a kid and if you’ve seen or read “The King’s Speech”, you know there are exceptions.

      I’ve heard many other public speakers claim they stuttered as a kid, too.

  • ForChristAlone

    And good hair and a magenta cape help an awful lot!

    • I’m adopting that cape for all future speaking opportunities.

  • Buddy

    These are great suggestions, but one tip not on the list is that it helps if you have a natural talent for public speaking, and Fulton J. Sheen had it in spades! Brandon, I enjoy your posts, especially when you write about Archbishop Sheen. Please pray that the Church will soon proclaim him a saint.

  • Joseph Heschmeyer


    Fascinating post, as always!

  • Babagranny

    I watched and listened to Bishop Sheen many times. He did all those things, but one thing he did that was not mentioned: practice. His TV talks were planned, rehearsed, and timed down to the split second and down to the square inch of walking space on the set. Yet he still seemed very natural. He was meticulous about his posture, his gestures, and his appearance. Another quality of his excellence was that he never talked down to his audience, but his point was always clear, even about some minute point of theological principles. I believe that the first point that made him so celebrated was that he always had something really interesting and important to say. I think that was the main reason he was as popular with non-Catholics as with Catholics.

  • Timothy Burdick

    I remember Archbishop Sheen once said “To give a good sermon, you need only do three things: Have a great beginning, a dynamite ending and keep the two as close as possible from to one another.” (paraphrased)

    • Yes! Archbishop Dolan cites that quote in the “Servant of All” DVD I mentioned.

  • Marcel LeJeune

    One disagreement – Number 9. Sometimes, esp. during allergy season, water is essential to getting through a talk. I have been projecting my voice for years and had some vocal chord damage, so I now have to have water to assure that I can wet my throat if needed.

    This might apply to those who aren’t sick, don’t speak often and are new to it. But, not every circumstance.

  • Teresamerica

    This is great! I’ll be passing this on with a hat tip.

© 2019 Brandon Vogt