Six crucial elements of a sticky message: stories

[This post is part of the series on Preaching for Youth]. This is the last installment in our short sub-series in which we applied the wisdom of Made to Stick (an absolute must-read on how to make ideas and messages stick) to preaching for young people. Today, we’ll talk about the undeniable power of stories.

Stories are strongly associated with entertainment. Kids want to be read bedtime stories because they want to be entertained, not instructed. In a sermon, entertainment usually isn’t our first priority, we’re actually far more interested in instructing. That doesn’t mean stories aren’t useful in sermons though, the opposite in fact. Made to Stick offers some very useful info.

Stories not only captivate and entertain, they actually help simulate and they inspire. All good reasons to include stories in your sermon to make your message sticky.

Stories as simulation

Listening to stories may seem like a very passive thing to do, but as it turns out there’s a lot going on in our brains when we listen to a story. Research has shown that active listeners don’t just listen to a story and visualize it, they actually simulate it in their minds. And what’s so interesting is that simulating past experiences and stories is far more effective than visualizing future outcomes. Despite what many self-help books tell us about visualizing our success, it doesn’t quite work that way (well, you already knew that – it’s just nice that science has proven this).

Our brains are wired such that we can’t imagine events without evoking the same parts of the brain that are used in the real physical activity. Because of that, simulations can lead to real physical responses for instance (example from the book: people who drink water but imagine they’re drinking lemon juice, will salivate more). Mental simulations can help us manage emotions (think of treatment for phobias), can help with problem solving and it can also build skills. Research has shown that mental practice alone produced about two thirds of the benefits of the actual physical practice!

The right kind of stories are just that: a simulation, the next best thing to the real thing. I’m betting Jesus knew this as well. Look at his very effective story of the Good Samaritan, it’s the perfect mental practice for you and me should we encounter a similar situation. We now know what to do!

It means that stories are a very effective way for us as youth leaders to help young people ‘practice’ being a disciple of Jesus. That’s why it’s such a great and effective tool to find stories that match your key message and share these to support your point and help students simulate the right behavior. And the beauty of it is that they don’t necessarily have to be ‘stories’, using a Biblical narrative as a story has the same effects. I’ve used David’s adventures for instance on more than one occasion as a story to instruct and demonstrate the ‘right’ behavior.

Stories as inspiration

But there’s more. Stories are almost the perfect tool to incorporate all crucial elements of a sticky message: they’re almost always concrete, they evoke emotions, they’re credible because they’re true (please, do make sure they are true and don’t change any facts to make it more suitable!) and they often have an unexpected aspect in them. Keeping them simple is often a bit of a challenge, as they have to match your core message and have to be stripped of unnecessary details and elaborations to create maximum impact.

Stories have the amazing dual power to both simulate and inspire. The trick is to spot the right stories to use or translate your Bible passage into a good story and then to tell these stories well. If you do that, your message is guaranteed to stick. As an added benefit, stories usually captivate your audience, so you’ll have no trouble holding their attention either!

How do you use stories in your sermon?

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