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)