Bishop Fulton J. Sheen & The Art of Communications

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen & The Art of Communications

Last night I watched a replay of a l951 black and white TV show, Life is Worth Living, featuring Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. In 1951 the Archdiocese of New York had decided to use television to Sheen promote a Christian message and selected Sheen to do the broadcast. The broadcast featured Bishop Sheen, standing the whole time, all alone, talking for thirty five minutes about a Christian view of life. It was a weekly televison show, before a live audience on Tuesday nights at 8:00 pm. Competing against big budget programs of "Mr. Television" Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra, he was not expected to make much of a splash and originally it was broadcast on the small DuMont television network. However, he soon took the country by storm, eventually drawing a weekly audience of 30 million viewers, winning an Emmy and even appearing on the cover of Time Magazine. Berle joked "he uses old material" and Sheen in accepting his Emmy Award gave credit "to his four writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John." The show ran until 1957. Sheen wrote some ninety books over his life time and was a well known public figure until his death in 1979.

I remember watching his programs back in the fifties, but had forgotten how effective he was as a speaker. Several things struck me about this replay. One of them was his use of humor. For example, he said: " When they clap for you at the beginning of your speech, it represents faith. When they applaud in the middle of your speech, it represents hope and when the applaud at the end of your speech, it represents charity."

His message was logical and organized. In the replay I watched, among other things, he discussed statistical studies. His explanations were simple and straight forward. He discussed "inductive" reasoning where one comes to a general conclusion based upon valid knowledge of specific cases. With deductive reasoning we arrive at conclusions from a knowledge of general cases. But, he pointed out, the deductive reasoning could be complete or incomplete. He gave examples where conclusions were based upon insufficient numbers to be valid. With this premise he discussed statistics in connection with recent publicity regarding how many young people prayed anymore. As I watched I immediately thought about the epidemiology disputes we often have in medical malpractice trials where some expert is expressing an opinion based upon studies. How often I’ve cross examined such experts challenging the validity of their conclusions and here Sheen was, making it all sound so much clearer and logical then I had been able to do in court. Sheen said that one should always ask about studies these questions: (1) How many possible cases or people are there? (2) How many of them were tested or surveyed (3) How valid was the test or survey? and (4) who paid for the test or research? He gave examples of each premises and cited a fictional study which concluded 33% of the women who attended Harvard ended up marrying a professional person. Then, using the chalk board, he asked: how many women were attending Harvard at the time? – three. How many married a professional person? One. Therefore, the conclusion was unreliable. With simple illustrations and using the blackboad he explained how statistics can be misleading. As I watched I reflected on how, long before Power Point, Melvin Belli  would bring his own blackboard on rollers into the courtroom, which at the time was considered innovative and daring.

As to his style, he used had no props except a desk with some books, blackboard and chalk and a statue of Madonna and Child on a pedestal. His message was only indirectly Catholic. It was a logical, but entertaining and informing thirty five minutes. His timing was perfect, not too fast with appropriate pauses. He would frequently turn and write something in chalk on the blackboard to break up the discussion. He would move around enough to keep attention on himself but not nervous pacing. He used examples or illustrations frequently. He never used notes or cue cards and had good eye contact with the camera at all times. He would modulate his level of talking for emphasis and inject humor from time to time. The information flowed logically and in an organized way, but was entertaining as well as informative. It was spontaneous and captivating and he always finished the broadcast precisely on time.

In reading about his preparation, I learned that he spent some thirty five hours on each presentation. He would prepare by reading about the subject for that broadcast. He would write out notes and then abandon the project and come back to it. He would change the sequence or revise the planned talk. He said "I learned the lecture from the inside out, not from the outside in" so most of his preparation was done in his mind. Eventually he had internalized the talk so that it flowed spontaneously from him. So, even a brilliant man and polished speaker like Bishop Sheen prepared with hard work for his talks. There’s a lesson for all of us in the field of communications.

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