From stage to page: turning messages into manuscripts

Charles Spurgeon did it. John Wesley did it. Peter Marshall did it. Max Lucado and Beth Moore are doing it today.

And, since you’re reading this, you probably want to do it, too.

Those speakers and pastors are taking their sermons or teachings and turning them into books. And, there’s probably not a pastor or public speaker alive who hasn’t thought, I’ll record my talk, transcribe it and send it to a publisher. However . . .

The spoken word and the written word are two very different animals!

They’re both forms of communication, but that’s like saying in the cat family you have Siamese kittens and saber tooth tigers. They’re both cats—but very different cat-egories!

So, today, we’re going to look at the differences between speaking and writing. We’ll look at the similarities and provide some practical ways to go from the stage to the page . . .

Let’s take a look at the differences. Draw a line down the middle of your paper On the left write STAGE and on the right PAGE.

On the STAGE, you have a variety of items in your tool box

You have your voice (which makes up 30 percent of our communication) This versatile tool includes tone of voice, volume, and melodic quality. I’m not talking about words, but the actual voice. For instance, Tim Allen’s Home Improvement made grunting a sophisticated form of communication.

You have your body language (which makes up over 50 percent of your communications) such as gestures and facial expressions. Did your Mom or Dad have “the look”? You’re cutting up and church and they just have to give you the “look,” and you know you’ll be spending Sunday afternoon in your room.

Body movements such as arms firmly crossed or arms open convey distinct messages.

You have props. In the local parish, I used lots of props in my messages. I rode the down aisle on a bicycle with a white shirt and black pants and gave a message as if I was a Mormon “missionary” to point out the unbiblical religion.

I spoke from Philippians 3 about everything being trash compared to knowing Christ so would put something in a trash can to make point:

    T-itles (ordination certificate)
    R-ches (my new guitar)
    A-ccomplishments (Campus Life award plaque)
    S-holarship (transcript from grad school)
    H-oliness (legalism; a book I edited on holiness)

And one Sunday, I made waffles on the platform as I talked about political and spiritual “waffling.”

Oh, and you also have words (which makes up only 10 percent of our daily conversation)

But when you open your writer’s tool box, there’s no voice, no body language, no props; Nothing but words! You’ve gone from the stage’s 100 percent effect down to 10 percent: black ink on white paper or pixels on a computer screen.

On the PAGE your tool box holds only black ink or glowing pixels

That’s why simply transcribing a sermon or teaching rarely works You just lost 90 percent of the effect!

On the stage, you’re in front of the audience; in writing, you’re in front of a computer screen.

You’re probably known as a speaker. If you’re speaking in your church, Sunday school class to an organization that you’re a member, there’s a relationship there: you know them, they know you; you both know the appropriate behaviors for that setting.

In writing, you may not have a relationship with your readers. They’re reading a magazine and come upon your article or they’re surfing the Web and happen to click on your site.

How are you going to connect with your readers?

Here are some ways to do that on the page:

Get sample copies of the magazine. Read the writer’s guide.

At the teen magazine I edited for six year, we had surveyed youth camps in our denomination. We knew exactly who our read was:

    Jennifer is fifteen years old, a Christian, and attends church and youth meetings faithfully. She doesn’t have a regular time alone with God and rarely reads her Bible. Jennifer has a pretty good understanding of salvation, but is unsure about the denomination’s emphases on “entire sanctification.” A good friend has tried sex and drugs, but she hasn’t. She has a crush on a guy at church, but he acts like she doesn’t exist. She has no convictions against dating a non-Christian, but is not sure where she stands about marrying a non-Christian.

So, as I dug through the pile of unsolicited manuscripts on my desk, I was only interested in articles that would effectively communicate with Jennifer.

All magazines have “writers guidelines” that provide detailed information on their readers.

On the STAGE, you’re probably known and trusted; on the PAGE you may not be.

Obviously they know you and trust you as a speaker, or they’d never let you near a lectern or pulpit. People are going to believe what you say because you have a history with the audience.

Hopefully, in writing the magazine is an old friend. They’re been subscribing to it for years. Or, the reader trusts the book publisher. When you write for denominational houses, they really run the author through the theological gauntlet. One publisher actually has an editorial committee, marketing committee and doctrinal committee!

One of the most important ways to connect with your reading audience is honesty and transparency. Ernest Hemmingway wrote that—and I’m paraphrasing—a good writer has a good “doodoo” detector. I think readers have an even more powerful doodoo detector.

So honesty and transparency earn you credibility. That’s probably the reason Ann Lamott is popular in both Christian and general markets. She is incredibly honest and transparent.

Another important way is humor. There’s even been scholarly, university studies on the effectiveness of humor. Yes, your tax dollars have actually paid for nearly one hundred government-funded studies of humor. There is solid proof that humor increases attention, comprehension and retention. (I’ve written a text book I used to teach “Writing Humor” at Taylor University: Writing with Banana Peels.)

If we can laugh together, there’s a sense of connection. “That’s happened to me, too!” “I’ve felt that way, too!”

On the STAGE, you have feedback; on the PAGE you have little. (You’re writing these down on your chart, right?)

I love talking to black audiences, because they talk back: “That’s right.” “Uh huh.” “You preach it.” You get into the rhythm like you’re playing tennis You serve an idea and they return the ball.

With any group, you’re receiving feedback from “yahs” to yawns, so, you can quickly adapt your presentation by picking up or slowing down the tempo, explaining a point that’s eliciting looks of confusion, or skipping minor points to quickly conclude. (If you haven’t struck oil in twenty minutes, stop boring!).

So, as a speaker, you’re constantly adjusting your speech to the audience’s reaction.

At a recent conference, a woman actually fell off her seat laughing. She could not stop. Then she got me laughing, so it was hard to get back on track

Speaking creates an energy not present in the written word. Reading a book or an article is a solitary experience. But when you are surrounded by hundreds of other people, reacting to the message, there is an energy and excitement.

And, one theory of persuasion argues that we don’t know what we think until we sense the reactions of those around us. That doesn’t happen with reading.

So you have to solicit feedback before you write from Writing critique groups and focus groups. (Make sure it’s a critique group and no “Say something nice about me and I’ll say something nice about you.”)

So, in writing, your audience is unseen, but it’s not un-knowable

On the STAGE, it’s “live,” it’s improvised. On the PAGE, it’s all “canned.”

That’s why I’d rather be writing or speaking. With speaking, it’s like the Olympics. No matter how much practice you’ve put into the talk inevitably there will be glitches: you lose your place, your train of thought derails, a child falls out of the balcony (it turned out to be a doll, but I really lost my timing.)

In print, everything is in your control, and if you don’t catch a faux pas, hopefully the editor will. In fact, I’ve gone to doing only email interviews. I can carefully think through the question, choose my words and let it sit a day or two to make sure that’s what I really want to say. I get in trouble when I ad lib! And I’m ADD, so I can get very distracted, Which is why my notes are also in manuscript form. So writing is a controlled, safe environment

On the stage, you can use 4,500 words, on the page 1,500. A half hour talk will use up about 4,500 words speaking at 150 words per minute. In an article or a book chapter slash that by one-third. You’ve got to “write tight”!

On the STAGE, you may speak to a thousand people; on the PAGE, you can easily reach 100 thousand.

Speaking may be the most effective mode of persuasion, but it’s not the most efficient. For instance, I recently spoke to one hundred people at a seminar. I spent a day working on the talk and then one day at the nearby district campground delivering it. So, my ratio of impact was fifty people per day. That same week, I spent a day writing an article for Decision magazine which reaches 1.8 million readers. To reach that many at one hundred people at a time, I would have to speak 18,000 days in a row or for 4,931 years! My ratio of impact was exponentially greater.

And there is the advantage that the talk is somewhat permanent when put into print. Every so often I’ll get an email saying how the person was helped by the article They must have read it in a waiting room or were cleaning out their magazine rack because I wrote in ten years ago! Online writing is even better since it’s available indefinitely, long after the magazine is in the recycle bin, to a worldwide audience.

The New Testament implies that Apollos was a much better speaker than the apostle Paul. And during the time of the famous preacher Charles Spurgeon, another pastor in London was actually considered a better preacher. So why do we know the names of Paul and Spurgeon over Apollos and “another pastor”? They both wrote! Paul penned nearly half the New Testament and Spurgeon published his weekly sermons as well as a monthly magazine.

In fact, we wouldn’t have the message of God’s love and redemption or the teachings of Jesus Christ if not for writing! Neither would we have the writings of Augustine, Thomas a Kempis, John Wesley, C.S. Lewis, Oswald Chambers, A. W. Tozer, or hundreds others through the ages. Parchment, papyrus, and paper have kept the message of Christ alive and in its original, unadulterated form.

For the audience’s perspective, on STAGE a person is speaking to hundreds or thousands; on the PAGE the author is speaking directly to you. So writing is personal!

I won a Campus Life “Book of the Year” contest in which the judges were teens. One wrote, “Jim Watkins is not an author.” (Ouch!) “No, it’s more like he’s sitting across from you at McDonalds sharing Diet Cokes.” (Okay, I can live with that.)

Reading is an intimate, one-on-one “conversation” between the writer and the reader. You’re not sitting at a conference with a thousand others listening to a speaker, but the author is talking directly to you.

Another advantage of reading is that you set the time and place, as well as the pace. Unlike other forms of mass communication, even audio books, you can read as slowly or quickly as you like. You can easily go back and re-read a section that isn’t clear. And, you can highlight, underline, dog ear and make notes in the margins in a magazine or book. (Try doing that with your iPod!)

On your notes, now draw a line from the stage side to the page side because there are lot of similarities

Both STAGE and PAGE require a great introduction.

A good lead attracts attention. Think of it as those screaming announcers on car commercials. “AT CRAZY CARL’S CAR CORRAL, WE’LL PUT YOU IN A BRAND NEW CAR WITH NO MONEY DOWN, NO PAYMENTS FOR THREE MONTHS. PLUS. . . .”

A good lead establishes the subject. Within a few seconds, your audience should know the exact subject.

A good lead sets the tone Is this a humorous piece? Is it a scholarly work? Is it a touching personal experience story? Is it a thriller?

A good lead doesn’t make promises it can’t keep. Back to our car commercial. You know very well there’s some kind of catch or a disclaimer at the end of the commercial read at five hundred words per minute: “Some restrictions apply based on credit rating and inventory availability. Does not include dealer prep and destination charges. Not valid on sunny days or even-numbered dates. . . .” If you don’t fulfill the promises made in the lead or introduction, your audience will feel just as deceived.

Both STAGE and PAGE require a logical outline

Write conversationally. A reader wrote, “When I read your newspaper columns, I can actually hear you.”

Strike a balance between colloquial and academic. In casual conversation I can use “gonna,” “like,” “well,” “you know,” and current slang (which will be outdated by the publication date), but not with writing. But it can “sound” conversational. Use “don’t” rather than “do not,” “can’t” rather than “cannot”

Avoid “preachy” language. “You should . . .” and “You must . . .” are going to disconnect you from your reader. I like the Greek word used to describe the Holy Spirit: paraclete “One who comes along side of.” That’s the position our writing needs to take.

Use universal illustrations. In a local speaking setting, you can use, well, local settings. In writing for an international audience, avoid your local context. For instance, in some countries, dog aren’t pets, they’re entrees.

So, there are some thoughts from going from stage to page. And once you do, you will exponentially increase your influence in time and space by getting your spoken word into the written word.

Copyright © 2000 James N. Watkins

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