Make Them Sweat: How to Capture Listeners and Hold Their Attention

Engaged audience

If you have ever taken a speech class you know that the beginning of your speech or your “hook” is the most important part of your speech. The same goes for your sermons. A compelling and time tested way to begin your sermon is to name a problem and promise to solve it. This creates tension and anticipation, which will capture the attention of your listeners. It works for your favorite movies and TV dramas. Why not use this tactic in your sermons? Here is how you do it:

Make the tension personal

Be sure to connect with your listeners by talking about your own struggle with the tension, mystery or conflict you are addressing. What is your experience with the problem? Give examples from your own life. In order to engage listeners they must relate to you and feel like you understand them. Without empathy your message has no credibility. Talk about your own struggles with prayer, faith, anger, difficult people, grief, temptation, discouragement, etc. Don’t use the pulpit as a confessional, but be willing to be honest and open. You must be real to your listeners. If you are not real, they will tune you out.

Make the tension universal

In order to get your listeners to want to spend the next twenty to thirty minutes listening to you, it is imperative that you make them feel the tension as well. How do your listeners experience the problem? You will have a variety of people listening to you so you must be intentional about reaching them. Describe and illustrate the tension in as many relevant ways as you can. For example, say your topic is “How to Overcome Temptation.” Imagine all the different ways people face temptation and be sure to name and illustrate them in your sermon. What tempts a middle aged man on a business trip is not the same as what tempts an elderly couple filling out a tax return. Get my drift? Touch as many experiences of the tension as possible. Get as many people on board as you can before you move to the next stage of your sermon.

Make a dead end

To increase anticipation it is important to express how we try and fail at solving the problem, mystery, or conflict. Not only is this a good rhetorical tactic, it also prepares our listeners for the transforming message of the gospel. Eugene Lowry calls this “the principle of reversal.”[i] In order to prepare listeners for the impact of our message we must describe how we fall short finding answers to the problem. For example, is your sermon on the struggle to feel love and accepted? Think of all the futile and destructive ways people seek out love. When you name all the “dead ends,” your listeners will be all the more ready to hear your answer or point on the love and grace of God. It will have maximum impact.

Make a promise to deliver

In order for your listeners to stay engaged they must know there will be a payoff to your message. Plainly tell your listeners the benefits of knowing and applying the answer. What difference will it make in their lives? How will it transform them! Why should they care about what you are going to tell them? Just as important, tell them the cost of not doing what you want them to do. What will happen if they ignore your message? Don’t give away your point, of course, but drive home the advantage of applying the upcoming message and the disadvantage of not applying it. This increases anticipation. Will the message improve marriage? Strengthen faith? Offer salvation? Transform relationships? Prevent moral disaster? Build character? Ease anxiety? Provide reconciliation and healing? Motivate to serve? Inspire action that will change the world? What is the promise of your message? Why should your listeners keep listening to you?

In a nut shell, you want to accomplish two things as you begin your sermon: validate and fascinate. Validate listeners by naming and describing their experience of the tension and fascinate them by promising relief of the tension and a valuable payoff. Communication expert Blair Warren reminds us that our need for validation is one of our strongest desires. What’s more is that Warren believes that our desire to avoid boredom is just as strong. When we are fascinated by something it has our undivided attention.[ii] Validating and fascinating are the dynamic duo of persuasive communication!

You will know you have effectively used the dynamic duo of validation and fascination when you hear this kind of feedback from listeners: “I felt like you were talking directly to me!” “Did you bug my house and listen to my conversations? How did you know I needed to hear a message on that?” “Have you been reading my email? Maybe you can read my mind! Today’s message hit me right between the eyes.” When your listeners feel validated in their struggles they will be fascinated to hear a solution. You will have their undivided attention. The power of anticipation will pull them through your sermon.

Adapted from That’ll Preach! 5 Simple Steps to Your Best Sermon Ever (Abingdon Press, 2017) by Charley Reeb. It is used by permission and available from Cokesbury and Amazon.

[i] Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form, expanded ed. (Louisville: Westminster  John Knox, 2001), Kindle edition, section two.

[ii] Blair Warren, The One Sentence Persuasion Course (Blair Warren, 2012), Kindle edition, chapter 4.

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