Six crucial elements of a sticky message: simplicity

[This post is part of the series on Preaching for Youth]. I already raved about Made to Stick in the book review I did a week ago, but I thought I’d take it a step further and break down the research-based advice the authors gave into six crucial elements of a sticky message.

As youth leaders, we want our young people to remember our messages, whether it’s what we teach in small group, what we preach in youth services, or what we share in one-on-one conversations. We want our messages to stick, because they have eternal importance.

But making our messages sticky is our responsibility. Sure, we can’t really teach someone who doesn’t want to be taught. Young people have to want to listen to us. But we have to make them want to, we have to make it easy for them. We have to do everything we can to make our messages stick and here’s the first of six crucial elements of a sticky message: simplicity.

Simplicity is the first of six crucial elements of a sticky message.

Simple message

Making a message simple has nothing to do with dumbing down the gospel or only teaching on relatively easy topics. It doesn’t mean you can’t share any kind of exegesis, research or deep wisdom. It’s certainly not about watering down Jesus’ teachings or only teaching from the New Testament.

It’s about finding the core of your message, the most important of the knowledge you want to share. It’s about discovering your key message within the whole of your sermon and focusing on that. It’s about prioritizing (because in each Bible passage there are so many good things to share) and finding the one truth you know is crucial for your audience. If you can’t summarize your core message into one sentence, you’re not done with your sermon prep yet.

Simple structure

The structure of your sermon has to support your key message, be built around it as a matter of fact. Every part of your sermon should repeat your key message, build on it, stress it and show it. If something you want to say doesn’t support your key message, it doesn’t belong in your sermon or if you feel you must add it (for instance as an illustration or personal detail), it should get minor attention.

Your core message should come across loud and clear, it should play the main role in your sermon so to speak. Afterwards your audience should have no trouble repeating your key message. If they can’t, you’ve not succeeded in getting your core message across.

The biggest threat to simplicity

In their book Made to Stick, the Heath brothers discuss one interesting phenomenon that is the biggest threat to simplicity: the curse of knowledge. The curse of knowledge means that you forget what it’s like to not know what you know, to not understand what is so familiar to you.

Let’s apply this to teaching and preaching. I think the curse of knowledge rears its ugly head often, for example in the following three ways:

  • We use theological terms that are completely normal to us, but sound like Chinese to our students like sanctification, justification, or atonement
  • We assume ‘the Gospel’ is familiar, as are concepts like servant leadership or the Kingdom of God
  • We assume everyone knows the Bible books, their authors, why they were written and why they are the Word of God

Need I say more? The biggest threat to simplicity is that we have forgotten what it’s like to not know God, not know theology, not know the Bible…And thus we can’t make our messages stick, because our audience has no idea what we’re talking about, or interprets it completely the wrong way.

Make your messages stick: keep it simple and don’t lose sight of what you know that your audience doesn’t.

What do you do to keep your messages simple?

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