What Sorkin has Taught me About Preaching (Prt 4)

Feedback.  It is essential for mastering any skill.  I am always intrigued that the higher up in the sports arena you see people or teams the more coaches they have, rather than fewer.  You would think being the most proficient in the world at what they do, the last thing they need is more coaching.  And yet performing their skill is more important at that level.  This is true of preaching and other ministries as well.

In an earlier post, I have mentioned that I wouldn’t be referring to a screenwriting course that I was working on anymore.  It was a course that Aaron Sorkin runs on the Masterclass website and I was seeking to make connections between screenwriting and preaching.  However, towards the end of the course, there were some great comments made about feedback.  So I will be making this one the last post in this series, maybe.  (See here for part 1)

While I will be applying this to preaching, it could be used for any ministry: Bible reading, small group leading, discipleship, etc.  This is about getting feedback and giving feedback.  You should be seeking to do both.

Here are the 5 tips for feedback.

  1. Feedback before filming.  Sorkin seeks to get as much feedback as he can before he sends his script to the director, and this is obviously before it is even before it is filmed. Getting feedback on a script after filming is a bit useless: what is he going to do with this?  A colleague of mine put me on to this (thanks, Mark!): give feedback to preachers before they preach.  One guy, I am training gets on the phone with me on Saturday night and preaches it down the phone and I give him notes. Our church has four services and preachers sometimes preach two or all four.  I will offer a few notes between each one.  Giving feedback after preaching has limited value and that value only for the next sermon.
  2. Find the right people.  This was a big thing for Sorkin.  “Be careful who you are listening to.  Be polite to everybody.  You can pretend you are listening to everybody….But you really want to be careful about who you are listening to”. He has had to find the right people to give him notes.  These are people who know what he is like and what he is aiming to do with a script.  Giving feedback is a gift and a ministry as anything else is.  Some people have it, others do not.  There is always that person who will find something negative to say and the person who always finds something positive about the worst talk in the world.  These are obviously not people to listen to.  Most people who shouldn’t give feedback are people who don’t know what preaching is supposed to be doing, or what you particularly are aiming to do as a preacher.  So, find the right person or be the right person.
  3. Generic feedback is (mostly) useless. Sorkin tells a story of someone walking past him after seeing one the original play of “A Few Good Men”. This person didn’t know he was the writer but they made the comment that the second act wasn’t structured right.  Sorkin, on reflection, realised that the person had no idea of scriptwriting but “it meant there was something stopping them from enjoying the second act”.  Generic feedback often shows that there is a problem but not necessarily what it is or what the solution is.  People often say “the sermon was too long”.  But this could mean a lot of things: there was too much information, the information was irrelevant, there were no illustrations to ground the sermon, etc. and probably has nothing to do with the length of time taken.
  4. Specific feedback needs a why. Scott Rudin who gives Sorkin feedback takes up to three weeks to go through a script page by page, line by line.  If you are saying to someone “it’s a bit long, I think you should cut this section” this is better than simply saying “it is too long”. But what is even better is “you need to cut this section because it doesn’t really add anything to what you are saying”.  If you are giving feedback, offer reasons for the feedback.  If you are looking for feedback, keep asking the “why?” question.
  5. Knowing what to do with feedback is important. Once you are given feedback, it is important to know what to do with it.  Let’s say you have been given the feedback “you need to cut this section because it doesn’t add anything”.  But you think it is important.  Rather than cutting it, you might need to ask “What do I do to show this does add to the talk?”.  Don’t dismiss the feedback, but don’t simply accept everything that has been said.  It might be the right question but offering the wrong solution.

Feedback is hard to hear.  Sorkin talks about how he gets feedback in an office “and by the time I hit the elevator button in the hall I just want to kill myself….I hate that it wasn’t perfect the first time”. But no-one ever gets it right the first time.  We need to work at being better, and we need others to help us get better (or be the person who gets others better).

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