“Audiences don’t always hear so good, but they see real well.”
In college I was singing with the University of Denver Chorale when I first heard this. We were backing up the Denver Symphony in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem. During one rehearsal Brian Priestman, the music director, was talking to those of us in the chorus about when we should sit and stand at different points in the piece. We even rehearsed our movements. Priestman said they were an important part of the total experience; how we moved could add drama or emphasis to the end or beginning of a section. “You see,” he explained with a wry smile, “audiences don’t always hear so good, but they see real well.”
Even all those years ago, we were in a visual culture. Even more so today. Speakers and preachers need to attend to the visual as much as to the aural when making a presentation. The visual can reinforce the spoken word or work against it.
Recently I preached on Revelation 1–4 at a week-long event. I worked closely with my partners at the conference to make sure what those attending saw and heard reinforced one another. We commissioned some art students to create four dramatic canvases to hang in back of the stage, each portraying a key scene from each of the four chapters.*
We also arranged seven lamps on small tables in front of the stage, calling to mind the seven lampstands of Revelation 2–3, which represented seven churches. These lamps remained throughout the week as silent reminders of the content.
On another occasion, my approach was much simpler. I began on the main floor of the sanctuary with some opening stories. But then, when I began to exposit the Scripture passage itself, I walked up behind the pulpit. If the minds of listeners wandered during the first part, I could recapture their attention with simple movement.
Recently our pastor had the sanctuary furniture moved around for one Sunday morning. He told us he did it to portray how Jesus disrupted the expectations of the Jewish leaders he dealt with. And it certainly kept our attention.
While words carry the content, what we see can make them memorable. More than that, not only can such visuals clinch the content, they can be the content.
*Art by Daniel Granitto and Gabriel Andres from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.