Will Ferrell on Tone

In 2001, comedian Will Ferrell participated in the popular sketch “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live as a silly, but brilliantly constructed character named Jacob Silj. Whether you like Ferrell’s style or not (how could you not, by the way?), there is something inherently hilarious about his characterization of this “State Department Official.” Silj (Ferrell) suffers from “voice immodulation” which makes it impossible for him to control the volume or pitch of his voice.

In effect, he screams in monotone. The magic of the comedy is the consistently cringe-worthy way that Silj talks, which is so terribly awkward that it makes viewers roar with laughter. Furthermore, the way that Ferrell talks about serious geopolitical conflicts around the world in this voice makes the comedic aspect of the sketch irresistibly funny. 

The point of the story is simple: the character is funny because his tone of voice is horribly wrong for the seriousness of the message he is trying to articulate. His tone undermines what he is trying to communicate.

You probably don’t preach the way that Jacob Silj communicates, but have you ever considered that your tone can change the way the message is heard while you preach? Our tone of voice is one of the first ways that we are perceived by our listeners, so it is critical that we, as preachers, are self-aware of the message we are sending with the way we speak. 

For example, in your ministry there are certainly times where you change your tone of voice because it would be wildly inappropriate to approach certain topics, situations, or issues with the wrong tone. Think practically: how would you approach the pulpit during a funeral versus a wedding? 

In Greek philosophy, Aristotle noted the importance of tone of voice in establishing ethos, or credibility of the speaker, as one of the 3 fundamental building blocks of a good speech. If your tone sounds like you do not believe the content you preach, you lose credibility. If your tone always reveals to your listeners that they frustrate you, they will feel you do not love them and will not listen to you. 

In light of Aristotle’s emphasis on tone, we should give it great consideration as we think about how to preach certain texts or topics. Even the Apostle Paul knew the importance that tone of voice played in articulation. In his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 4:20), Paul expresses his frustration in not being able to share his tone with the readers because he knows that his tone could convey a much greater clarity of emotion as he writes. In the passage, Paul is certain that his confusion with the Galatians would become clear through his tone. If Paul is concerned with his tone as he writes, shouldn’t we consider it as we speak?

Tone is a critical part of your preaching. It is paramount to think deeply about how your tone conveys your message in each segment of your sermon, whether it is propositional teaching, illustration, handling Biblical texts, or anything in between. 

With all the time you put in to your sermon prep, the last thing you want is to fall flat on your listeners because you fell monotone during the most important point of the sermon. As Tim Keller writes: “People get used to the same tone or tenor of voice. It is far more effective when a speaker can move from sweetness and sunshine to clouds and thunder! Let the biblical text control you, not your temperament. Learn to communicate ‘loud’ truth as loud; ‘hard’ truth as hard; ‘sweet’ truth as sweet.”

Maybe more simply put: don’t be like Jacob Silj.