Six crucial elements of a sticky message: Unexpectedness

[This post is part of the series on Preaching for Youth]. We’re taking a closer look this week at Made to Stick, the awesome book by Chip and Dan Heath on how to make ideas stick, and how we can apply this to preaching. Yesterday we stressed the importance of simplicity, finding the core of your message.

The second element of a sticky message is unexpectedness, which is crucial to get people’s attention. Before we dive into this and explore some ideas for doing something unexpected in a sermon, let me say this.

I know that the idea of using certain strategies, methods and tactics to get people to pay attention to a sermon is controversial, if not offensive to some. They feel that God’s words should speak for themselves, that all you have to do is ‘just preach the Word’ and that people who don’t want to listen shouldn’t be made to.

I disagree.

Let me rephrase that. I disagree strongly.

I think we owe it to the eternal importance of our message to try and do everything we can think of to get people to listen to us, except changing the content of our message. And I think that’s what the Bible shows us as well. Paul used different methods and approaches, depending on his audience. Jesus used proven tactics to make His audience listen.

Using proven methods to keep our audience’s attention isn’t watering down the Gospel, dumbing down our message or focusing on entertainment more than God’s Word. It’s about taking our responsibility as a preacher, a teacher seriously and doing whatever we can to make sure our message, God’s message gets heard. OK, enough said.

Surprise is what draws attention, but interest is what keeps it. What can you do to include both in your messages?

Unexpectedness: surprise and interest

What we want when we preach is twofold: we want to get our audience’s attention and when we have it, we want to keep it. Made to Stick shows that it’s surprise that gets our attention and that it’s interests that keeps it.

Getting attention: surprise

The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: break a pattern. Our brain is wired such that it immediately picks up on changes, any kind of change. If your sermons are always the same in opening, structure, elements, style, etc, you’re missing out on a major way to draw your students’ attention. Do something unexpected, change something in your routine. It’ll get you off to a good start, just don’t overdo it, it still has to fit you and your message. But there’s more.

One reason why we often remember so little from sermons or messages we’ve heard, is that they often all sound familiar. Read your Bible, pray every day, don’t have sex till you’re married, these are all messages our students have heard a thousand times. If you want them to pay attention, focus on the new and unexpected in your message. What can you show, highlight or teach that is different from what they’ve heard so far? Title your sermon ‘don’t pray every day’ and I’ll guarantee you you’ll have attention!

Keeping attention: interest

How do you keep your audience’s attention once you’ve got it? By creating interest.

The best way of creating interest is to use our brains built-in need for closure. When we hear a story, we want to know how it ends. When we read a thriller, we want to know who did it. When we are presented with a mystery, we want to know the answer, the solution. I’ve finished bad, even horrible books on more than one occasion because I still wanted to know how it ended, even though I didn’t care for the book.

Made to Stick describes this phenomenon as the ‘gap theory’: curiosity happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge that we want to close. But here’s the catch: it has to be a gap in our knowledge, not an abyss, so it starts out with knowledge. If your sermon doesn’t fit the amount of knowledge your audience has, you may lose them all together because they won’t make efforts to close a canyon, only a gap. So make sure you start with what they do know and then create a mystery, a curiosity to make them want to close the knowledge gap.

One example I saw recently was on Jonathan McKee’s blog, obviously not a sermon but still a powerful application of this principle. Jonathan described a discussion he’d had with his daughter over parents reading the text messages of their kids. His daughter objected to this practice, he was all for it. Jonathan presented his readers with the first part of the story, then asked for everyone’s opinion.

But the thing was this: we didn’t know how it had ended. Had Jonathan changed his mind? Had he told his daughter no? I, and I’m guessing many others with me, wanted to know how this had ended. He waited a few days and then posted the ending. It sure made me come back to his blog and read what had happened! (and how many of you will now head over to his blog to find out how this ended yourself…Hmm, I wonder…)

What applications do you see for your preaching when you read all this? What could you change to keep your audience’s attention?

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