4 Ways to Improve Focus while Preparing a Talk or a Sermon

Preparing talks and sermons is one of my highest priorities as a pastor. I’ve often said that preparing a message feels much like writing a term paper, each week. I even heard someone say that sermon preparation is like delivering a baby each week and then on Monday realizing you are expecting again. It’s hard work and takes time. Without sustained focus and attention, sermon prep can consume an inordinate amount of time. (See my post here about how long we should spend preparing a sermon). To maximize my prep time, I’ve learned to focus my attention in these ways.

  1. Visual gating.
    • Visual gating simply means to block out other visual distractions. In my office at church I have two desks. One is the main one that faces the office area which allows me to see out the window. Another one is around the corner in a nook. Only a bare wall stands behind my computer monitor. I use this one. At my home office I have my desk and monitor arranged in the same way. A bare wall stands behind them. I also use the ‘focus’ mode on Microsoft Word. It blocks out all the other panes and programs that lie behind Word so that the only thing I see is my current document. If you don’t use Word, you can buy several other programs that do the same thing. One company even found that the best way they increased employee productivity was to get them large computer monitors.
  2. Auditory blocking.
    • Ambient sounds can definitely distract us from our prep. I’ve used two techniques. I turn on a small fan that blocks most unwanted noise. However, if I really want to maximize concentration, I use my sound suppressing headphones and listen to the sound of rushing water with an iPhone app called Ambiance. You can get zillions of sounds through this app if rushing water does not work for you.
  3. Dopamine enhancement.
    • The neurotransmitter dopamine helps us maintain attention and is involved with reward in the brain. We need dopamine to help us concentrate. Too little and we don’t focus. Too much and we get wired. When we check off a task from our to do list we get a tiny burst of dopamine. Chocolate can increase it (although I don’t recommend keeping a jar of M & M’s on your desk). And, caffeine can boost it as well. I don’t drink coffee or tea, the two main sources of caffeine. However, sometimes I will drink a diet coke or use 5-Hour Energy. I’ve found that this energy drink does not leave me with a crash when it wears off. I wrote a blog on energy drinks for the busy pastor here.
  4. Minimized computer distractions.
    • When I study I turn off any email or social networking automatic reminders. Studies show that when social media and email interrupt us, it takes us several minutes to get back to the task.

What has helped you concentrate while prepare a talk or sermon?

INVITATION to a LEADERSHIP EVENT: This Tuesday, June 10, at 11 am PDT/2pm EDT I am privileged to join Brian Dodd and Greg Atkinson in a live broadcast on leadership. We’ll be talking about innovative leadership, avoiding people pleasing, and indispensable practices to help you grow. Here’s the link if you’d like to join us.

Related posts:

A Science-based Sermon Note Taking Template

I invest 15-20 hours each week to prepare a Sunday sermon. If you’re a pastor, I’m sure you invest similar time. Have you ever wondered, though, how much of your sermons really stick in your listeners’ minds to help them become spiritually transformed? I have, many times. As I’m learning more about how God fashioned our brain to work in learning environments, I’m testing what I’m learning as I preach. I just began a series on Romans at our church and I created a new sermon note taking template (below) based on some science-based learning principles. I describe it here and include some screen shots if you’d like to modify it for your use.

First, a few basic details.

  • It’s a front and back insert. The image in this post includes both front and back.
  • We hole punch it so people can put it into a notebook, rather than the recycle bin.
  • The front includes basic details such as date, passage, speaker, etc.

Now, some of the science based principles.

  • All Learning is Based on Prior Learning: Next week’s passage. At the top on the front page, I include the following week’s Scripture passage. I encourage our people to read that passage at least five days of the next seven, three times at each sitting. The more familiar they are with the passage I will preach from, the more what they hear will resonate because they are already familiar with the passage. All learning is based on prior learning and the more they know about the passage, the more sticky your sermon will be.
  • Gist or Verbatim memory: Today’s Big Idea. I try to boil down the message into one core statement. [This particular week I simply gave an overview of the book and then shared 9 ways the listener could get the most from the series.] When we speak, we must balance two kinds of memory, gist memory –this means what it says, the gist of what you are preaching, which, by the way, sticks in memory longer – and verbatim memory – specific details of your sermon. The big idea captures the one overall concept, gist memory, what I hope the people retain if they forget everything else.
  • Neurons that fire together, wire together: Last Week’s Big Idea. Although the graphic does not include this line because that Sunday was week one of the series, in future weeks I will include the prior week’s big idea. Repetition truly is the key to learning. The more specific neurons fire together, the more our brain wires itself around what made it fire (it’s called ‘Hebbian Law’). So, when you repeat something, neural circuits around that repeated concept get strengthened. Repeating the prior week’s big idea can help imbed those key concepts you hope will get retained.
  • The Protege Effect: Today’s Key Insight. Students who help tutor other students consistently outperform other students. It’s the old “you want to learn something, teach someone else” concept. On the second page at the top is a box where people can write down one or two key insights that stood out the most from the sermon. I encourage them to envision teaching someone else that concept. Even imagining this will help imbed learning – even better, actually doing it.
  • Social Learning: Today’s Lunch Question. Next, on the backside of the insert I include a box with a question about the sermon. I encourage our people to discuss it at lunch with their friends and family. This process, called social learning (processing what we learn with others) is proven to help deepen learning. As we dialogue with others, we gain different perspectives and new insights, which makes our sermons stickier.

These and other learning techniques you can apply around sermon note taking can help imbed the biblical truths about which you area preaching. Of course, ultimately the Holy Spirit brings transformation. John reminds us of this here.

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14.26)

What has helped make your sermons sticker?

Related posts:

5 Signs that you Need to Quit Something

Quitters never win and winners never quit was drilled into my mind at an early age. I believed it. I practiced it. I lived it. I only quit one thing in my life before age 18, my high school football team. I quit because I sat on the bench 99.976% of the time. Since, then, however, I’ve questioned the veracity of that phrase, as catchy as it may sound. And recently I heard a concept that further spurred my thinking about quitting – strategic quitting. What is strategic quitting and why should pastors and leaders practice it? In this post I define strategic quitting and suggest 5 signs that you need to quit something.

First, a definition of strategic quitting. Strategic quitting is thoughtfully and carefully quitting a program, ministry, or initiative that simply is not working, has become staid, is disproportionately  sucking up resources, or simply needs to go. In contrast to reactive quitting, quitting when things simply get harder, strategic quitting is not a spur of the moment knee-jerk reaction to difficulty. Rather it is a measured decision carefully made.

It’s a concept so essential that leadership expert Seth Godin even wrote a book about about it, The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to QuitHe says, “Strategic quitting is the secret of successful organizations.”

Unfortunately, strategic quitting isn’t easy because of a phenomenon called the ‘sunk-cost bias.’ The ‘sunk cost bias’ is a mental trap we can easily fall into. Because we have invested so much time and energy into a project, we would feel like a failure if we nixed it. In reality, many such projects need to go. Read more about this bias here.

So what are some benefits of strategic quitting?

4 benefits of strategic quitting…

  1. It can release resources (your time, staff or volunteer time, and money) for other projects and initiatives with greater potential for material, spiritual, or organizational payoff.
  2. It can remove the perpetual drip, drip, drip of regret that has nagged your soul and emotions for months (or even years).
  3. It can boost your leadership in the eyes of others when they see you muster the courage to nix that ‘elephant’ that most everybody felt should have gone long ago.
  4. It can develop a key quality great leaders embody, humility. It’s humbling to admit that a project you may have started just doesn’t work anymore, or never did.

If you think you may need to strategically quite something, how do you know?

5 signs that indicate you need to strategically quit something…

  1. When in your soul you know it needs to go. Perhaps you’ve often wrestled with this ‘thing’ in your mind and you never can seem to get peace about it. Is God saying, “Now’s the time?”
  2. When those you trust hint that it needs to go. Have influencers in your circle raised the issue from time to time? Have they suggested that the ‘thing’ needs to go?
  3. When in your mind’s eye as you envision it gone you sense deep relief. As you’ve thought about it and imagined it no longer a burden, do you feel like a weight is off your shoulders? How much influence should you allow this subjectivity play in your decision?
  4. When you sense the Lord prompting you to strategically quit. In your quiet moments with the Lord, do you sense Him releasing you from it? Have you spent time praying about it?
  5. When you begin to really dislike the ‘thing.’ Perhaps your attitude has soured on it and constantly confessing your attitude doesn’t change it. Maybe this is God’s way of saying, “It needs to go.”

Knowing when to strategically quit can be tricky. Our emotions can powerfully influence decisions, sometimes in the wrong direction. But when your heart, your influencers, and the Lord seem to all say, “Stop the thing,” maybe it’s time to.

As you read this post, what ‘thing’ in your ministry or organization came to mind that you potentially need to strategically quit?

If some program or initiative did come to mind, what steps do you need to take to discern if you need to quit it?

Related posts:

5 Brain-friendly Tips to Enhance Your Presentations

It’s all about the brain. When you preach a sermon or make presentations and want to maximize your impact with your presentation, keep the brain in mind. More than anyone else, cognitive psychologist Richard Mayer has studied the link between learning and multimedia. In his experiments, those exposed to his learning concepts recalled details more accurately and problem solved better, what we hope happens when we preach, teach, or present. Here’s a summary of his findings with practical tips you can easily apply in your next Powerpoint or Keynote presentation.

How to enhance your presentations.

  • People learn better when you use words and pictures versus words alone.
    • Application: include applicable pictures in your slides, not just filler type pictures.
  • People learn better when you simultaneously use words and corresponding pictures rather than using them successively.
    • Application: include words AND pictures on the same slide.
  • People learn better when you place the words and pictures close to each other rather far from each other on the slide.
    • Application: make sure you keep your words and related picture close to each other on every slide.
  • People learn better when you exclude extraneous material.
    • Application: keep your slides simple, the fewer words and pictures the better.
  • People learn better when you use animation and narration rather than animation and on-screen text.
    • Application: when appropriate, sprinkle animations into your presentations to illustrate key concepts. SermonSpice is a great resource for churches.

What have you discovered that has helped make your presentations more sticky?


Related posts:

Are your sermons hard or easy to listen to?

While earning my executive master’s degree in the neuroscience of leadership, I learned some fascinating insights about the brain that can help us pastors lead, speak, and live more effectively. To prep you for today’s post, answer this question? How would people describe my sermons: hard to listen to or easy to listen to? Take a moment and stop reading and honestly answer that question for yourself. Whatever your answer, we can all improve our preaching. In this post I share some interesting insight about the brain that can make your sermons easier to listen to.

I’ve included below a short checklist based on neuroscience insight that might give you a clue and help you improve.

But before that checklist, I’ve listed a few important brain facts to set the stage.

  1. The executive brain functions like concentration, abstract reasoning, problem solving, and attention occur primarily in the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the area roughly behind your forehead. This is the part of the brain you hope your sermons engage. If your listeners don’t engage this part of the brain, your sermon “went in one ear and out the other.”
  2. The PFC processes information in a serial fashion (one thing at a time). Think of a conveyer belt with an item on it followed by another followed by another, etc. You may recall Lucille Ball’s famous candy conveyor belt episode. If something happens at the front end of that conveyer belt and all the items get clogged up, then nothing moves forward. The same thing happens in the brain. It will only process one thing at a time and if overloaded, it processes very little information. Multi-tasking is a misnomer. See my blog post on multi-tasking here.
  3. The PFC tires easily. If a speaker does not give breaks for the listener’s brain to rest, it will take its own breaks.
  4. Five fundamental processes summarize what the PFC does: it understands, decides, recalls, memorizes, and inhibits (that is, blocks out distractions).

Many complex processes are happening inside the brains of our listeners. So, how can we maximally engage their brains so that the Holy Spirit has lots of biblical truth to work with in their hearts to ultimately bring about life transformation?

I’ve included a few ideas below based on neuroscience.

  • Start out telling the people where you’re going with your sermon. Give an outline or a metaphor that points in a specific direction. The term is called pre-encoding. Learning is the encoding part. Pre-encoding sets up the listener to learn.
  • Don’t aimlessly ramble. If you constantly chase rabbits, their brains will check out.
  • Don’t use complex terms and long sentences. When you do, the listener’s brain will tune you out to try to figure out what you just said. They essentially won’t hear what you say next.
  • A close cousin to the above: be careful about using abstract ideas. Again, the brain will try to process abstract ideas and tune out what you say next.
  • If you do present a complex idea, stop and pause a few seconds to allow people to process it and think about it. In other words, mix up the rate at which you deliver your sermons. Well placed pauses are good.
  • Simplify your power points. Use only a few words per slide. Pictures that explain your points are even better. In this post I suggest some practical ways to make your visual presentations better.
  • Don’t get long-winded. You may have the speaking ability to keep people’s attention for more than 30 or so minutes. If you do, you don’t need to read this blog. But in an age when attention spans are rapidly decreasing (the average person’s attention span is shorter than a goldfish, really), shorter sermons will stick better.

What insights have you discovered that help your listeners absorb more of your sermons?

Related Posts: