April 19, 2011
Even if you have the most profound truths, you can still be profoundly boring. I was once on the pastoral search committee for our church and heard a sermon from a prospective candidate who delivered fourteen points. Yes, count ‘em, fourteen points! There has to be a better way, and there is.
Writing non-fiction (or speaking, teaching or preaching) doesn’t mean you can’t build in drama. Including stories as illustrations is always good, but there’s more to it than just telling the tale.
Here are a few options to keep your audience with you every word of the way.
Start with the first half of a story and leave it hanging. Then transition to your main points. At the end of the chapter, article or talk, tell the rest of the story you began with. Holding the end of the story in suspense builds drama and keeps interest.
Loop back to the beginning. Even if you tell all or most of a story at the beginning, go back to that story you opened with and tie it together as part of your conclusion.
Use in medias res. This Latin phrase (“into the middle of things”) refers to starting in the middle of a story--often a very dramatic moment, such as right before a championship game or when the doctor is about to give a diagnosis. But at this point in the tale, the key is to not give the resolution. Rather, stop and go back to the beginning of the story to explain how things got to this midpoint. When you get back to that part of the story (where you started), you can finish it from that point or do so later.
Tell a story within a story. I once went to the funeral of a Jewish friend (the story) at which the Cantor told a story from the Talmud about a man going to meet the king (the story within the story). It was a very interesting parable in itself, but explaining the context of the story and my reaction to it has made for heightened interest for my audience.
Tell the story of how you learned something. Rather than just relate flat information, ideas or tips to your audience, tell them the story of how you learned this material. Discuss the questions you had, how you searched, the problems you faced in coming to these conclusions, the mentor you had, the mistakes you made, the conversation that opened your eyes, and so forth. Lee Strobel has used this technique to good effect in The Case for Christ.
Raise a problem. Make people feel the problem. Don’t build a straw man that’s easy to knock down. Don’t telegraph the solution. Instead show the real difficulties involved. This makes your audience feel the tension, yearn for an answer and keeps them reading (or listening) till you offer it. Each chapter of Deep Church by Jim Belcher does this effectively.
Needless to say, we didn’t hire our fourteen-point candidate. We hired the one who had solid content and told a story, simple and personal. That made all the difference.