[This post is the fourth post in our Public Speaking in the Church Series.]
There are many jokes about pastors and sermons, but one of my favorites is where a bunch of pastors from different denominations brag about how they improvise (the spiritual interpretation would be to give the Holy Spirit plenty of opportunity to lead them) during their sermon. The ‘winner’ proudly announces that 30 minutes into his sermon, he still has no idea what he’s going to say…
The sad truth is that we have all experienced this at one time or another. We’ve been subjected to sermons where we had absolutely no idea what they were about. We’ve sat through presentations that were so confusing that we were befuddled as to any kind of unifying theme or element.
The lack of a big idea is the first culprit most of the times, as we discussed in the previous post in this series. But a missing structure, or a fuzzy one, is just as guilty.
Structuring your talk, whether it’s a sermon-type of message, an announcement, or a presentation of some kind, is incredibly important. Where centuries ago, people were used to auditory information, many people nowadays have trouble processing something they can only hear. We’ve become used to multi-media approaches where we read, see, and hear at the same time. We’ve un-learned the ability to digest large chunks of auditory info.
The second reason is that because we’ve become so used to multi-media, it’s not just harder to process what we only hear, it’s also become more boring. Many people struggle keeping their attention when all they can do is listen. That’s why adding visual elements can be so crucial by the way, but we’ll cover that in a later post. A clear structure makes it not only easy for people to follow your story and process while listening, it also makes it more interesting.
Two Approaches to Structure
There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to structure. The first line of thinking is that you make you structure as clear as possible by announcing it. So you start by saying you’ll be covering three points and you use words and signifiers like “My first point is”, “Secondly”, “To summarize my third point”, etc. The advantage of this approach is that everyone knows exactly where you are in your line of reasoning, what’s next, and what to expect.
The second school of thought is that you use a crystal clear structure—most notably the standard ‘three act’ structure most stories and movies have—but you make it almost undetectable for your listeners. You use smooth transitions to go from one element to the next, without ever letting your listeners know where you are in your story.
I’m a huge fan of the second approach and the reason has everything to do with that last word, “story”. While the first method may make your structure very clear, it’s also a very rational, almost clinical approach that best fits a lecture or classroom situation. It’s the perfect structure when your goal is purely to convey information. Most of the time in the church however, we don’t want to just inform. We want to inspire to transform. Big difference.
When your goal is to inspire and transform, you don’t want people in a rational, clinical frame of mind. You want them to feel as well; you want their emotions to be engaged. An unobtrusive three act structure (beginning, middle, and end) fits this purpose best.
In the next post we’ll dig a little deeper into this story-structure.