The British, American, and Australian press—and hundreds of millions of royal wedding viewers—were unexpectedly enthralled by Bishop Michael Curry’s 13.5 minutes of fame:
- “Stole the show” (Telegraph and Vox).
- “Electrifying” (New York Times).
- “Wholly un-British, amazing, and necessary” (Esquire).
- “Will go down in history” (Guardian).
- “His star turn is set to impact the Most Reverend Michael Curry’s life for years to come” (news.com.au)
His gist: “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love,” God’s love. “And when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world.” A positive message—and an appealing synopsis of authentic Christianity—but why was it so effective? Why did it connect so well and capture media coverage? What persuasion principles did he illustrate that others—preachers, teachers, students, all speakers—might want to emulate?
The power of repetition. Experiments leave no doubt: Repetition strengthens memory and increases belief. Repeated statements—whether neutral (“The Louvre is the largest museum in Paris”), pernicious (“Crooked Hillary”), or prosocial (“I have a dream”)—tend to stick to the mind like peanut butter. They are remembered, and they are more likely to be believed (sometimes even when repeated in efforts to discount them).
Few will forget that Curry spoke of “love” (66 times, in fact—5 per minute). We would all benefit from emulating Curry’s example: Frame a single, simple message with a pithy phrase (“the power of love”). From this unifying trunk, the illustrative branches can grow.
The power of speaking from the heart. A message rings authentic when it emanates from one’s own life experience and identity—when it has enough self-disclosure to be genuine, but not so much as to be self-focused. Curry, a slave descendant, speaking in an epicenter of White privilege, began and ended with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., and he told how his ancestors, “even in the midst of their captivity” embraced a faith that saw “a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.”
The power of speaking to the heart. My wife—an Episcopalian who has heard Curry’s preaching—has told me that his presence lends power beyond his written words. Curry was well prepared. But rather than safely reading his polished manuscript, he made eye contact with his audience, especially Prince Harry and Ms. Markle. He spoke with passion. His words aroused emotion. They spoke to troubled hearts in a polarized world.
The power of vivid, concrete examples. The behavioral scientist in me wishes it weren’t true, but, alas, compelling stories and vivid metaphors have, in study after study, more persuasive power than truth-bearing statistics. No wonder each year, 7 in 10 Americans, their minds filled with images of school shootings and local murders, say there is more crime than a year ago—even while crime statistics have plummeted.
William Strunk and E. B. White’s classic, The Elements of Style, grasped the idea: “If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars.”
And Curry, too, offered particulars, with simplicity, repetition, and rhythmic cadence:
When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more.
When love is the way, there’s plenty good room—plenty good room—for all of God’s children. When love is the way, we actually treat each other like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all. We are brothers and sisters, children of God.
Brothers and sisters: that’s a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family.
With such repeated, heart-filled, concrete words, perhaps all preachers and speakers could spare listeners the fate of Eutychus, who, on hearing St. Paul’s preaching, “sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead” (Acts 20:9).