Several years ago I took a 13-week intensive class on how to coach through the Professional Christian Coaching Institute. One of my teachers, Anne Denmark, professionally coaches church leaders and trains speakers. As a highly credentialed and experienced coach she shares her insights on her blog. During one class she shared nine basic principles on adult learning. As I read them I realized that each could apply to a pastor’s sermon prep and delivery. I’ve listed them below.
Nine Basic Principles of Adult Learning
- Recency – what is most recently learned is best remembered.
- Active Learning – people learn best by “doing” through active involvement and participation. Confucious said, “I hear and I forget.I see and I remember. I do and I understand”
- Multi-Sensory – taking information in through all five senses increases learning.
- Primacy – what you learn first you learn best. Put the most important points first (the need to know first) and then put the least important ones last (the nice to know) last. Tell people your objectives up front.
- Two- Way Communication – ask questions often to keep learners alert and thinking.
- Feedback – check in to see if your listeners are understanding your material.
- Appropriate – people learn by attaching new information to something they already know.
- Motivate – give adults the reason the learning will benefit their life – their need to know. Make it practical enough that they will take it home and use it.
- Exercise – apply what you have learned as soon as possible. If you do not do this within 6 hours, 25% will be forgotten. If not applied within 24 hours, 67% will be forgotten. If not applied within 6 weeks, 90% will be forgotten.
How might these adult learning principles guide your sermon prep and preaching?
Would you add a tenth?
I just read the book Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions by Dr. Carmen Simon. It is probably THE best book on communication I’ve ever read. Every pastor and communicator should read the book. Really! Dr. Simon is uber-smart (two PhD’s), yet she writes on a practical level. I learned a boatload of insight I’m now beginning to apply in my sermon prep. From her book I gleaned these five neglected questions that most pastors seldom if ever consider during their prep. Yet, those questions can profoundly impact how well your listeners apply what you teach.
5 Neglected Questions Every Pastor should Ask During Sermon Prep
- What cues am I considering that could jog my listener’s memory to apply my message during the next week?
- Dr. Simon explains that when we speak, we hope that at some point in the future a listener will act upon our message. And at that future point three mental processes occur. Cues help a listener notice something that relates to the intended new belief or behavior. The listener will search his memory for what the speaker/preacher suggested he do. And, he (hopefully) will execute on his intentions. All this happens in a fraction of a second.
- Application: Build into your message cues that might prompt your listener to remember what you said and motivate him or her to do it. I recently handed out small red stickers shaped like a stop sign. The STOP is an acronym related to ways to process anxious moments. I hope that when people see the sticker or a STOP sign, that cue will prompt them to act.
- What kind of memory do I hope to engage in my listener, gist or verbatim memory?
- Gist memory is when we remember the general idea or sense of something in the past. Verbatim memory is word-for-word. And gist memory lasts longer than verbatim memory, although both are important.
- Application: As you prepare your message be clear about which kind of memory you hope your listener will draw upon. Adjust your message accordingly.
- Have I inadvertently planned for my listener to remember the wrong point(s)?
- Multiple factors impact how well people remember our messages. They include novelty, emotion, story, distinctiveness, social impact, and relevance. Sometimes we can inadvertently make a minor point stand out so much that the major points get lost. Clarify your most cogent points and make sure that those stand out above the minor ones.
- Application: Evaluate the word pictures, jokes, and stories you use. Make sure they reinforce your main points. Better yet, focus them on the one or two key take-aways. Ask yourself, “If my listener only remembered 10% of my message, what 10% would I want him to remember?”
- Do I appreciate the fact that for my listener to really ‘get it,’ he or see has to periodically tune me out during my talk/sermon?
- I tend to struggle when I don’t see people pay constant attention to me when I teach. I used to assume that they were bored with what I was saying (and certainly many have been and are currently bored). However, Dr. Simon points out that people go in and out of paying attention to us every 12 to 18 seconds. When that happens, they carry out an internal dialogue with themselves by formulating meaning to what we are saying and hopefully in doing so, make personal application. When that happens, the brain provides a stronger chemical signal that helps the memory ‘stick’ better. So, you actually want your listener to periodically tune out.
- Application: The next time you’re speaking and it looks like someone is briefly tuning out, remind yourself that they are probably consolidating a memory about what you said. Even if they are bored, this kind of thinking will help minimize the negative self talk (i.e., “Oh no! I’m boring them.)
- Have I considered that I want my listener to remember both in the past (what I said) and in the future (future intentions called prospective memory).
- In the same area in our brain where we reflect over the past, we plan for the future. So, when we reminisce or plan, we’re drawing from similar kinds of information. When you prepare your talks, keep this fact in mind. You don’t want your listener to simply reminisce about what you said. You want them to act upon it in the future, to remember a future intention. If they only remember what you said and don’t connect it to a future change in belief or behavior (to become more like Christ), what you said isn’t very helpful.
- Application: As you craft your message, think about how you can help your listeners anticipate the future. Perhaps take a minute toward the end of your talk and ask them to role play in their minds what you are asking them to apply during the coming week. For example, if your message is on conflict resolution, have them role play in their minds how they would resolve a conflict with someone.
If you communicate to groups of people in any way, Impossible to Ignore is a must-read. And, as part of her book, Dr. Simon also provides a nifty template against which you can evaluate your talks. It’s quite helpful.
Although I’ve been a pastor 35 years, only in the last few years have I discovered the value of studying/working outside my church and home office. I’ll either go to McDonalds (cheap food) or when I lived in Chicago, Panera (good atmosphere and the place I preferred). Both provide free Wi-Fi. While I don’t advocate spending all your time working outside the office, I’ve found that doing so once a week benefits me and the ministry in these ways.
5 Benefits of Working Outside the Office
- Productivity: Less interruptions from others.
- Creativity: A different environment spurs it.
- Focus: Less distractions help me concentrate better (like being tempted to clean up my office or play with something on my desk).
- Energy: A different ambiance/atmosphere gives me more.
- Stress management: I feel less of it in a neutral environment.
When I do work outside the office, I use an app I play into my sound suppressing headphones. It’s called Ambiance which offers zillions of nature sounds to listen to. I use Audio-technics active noise-cancelling headphones. They’er cheaper than Bose and about as good.
If you can, try working outside your office a day or so a month and see if it benefits you as it does me.
What other advantages of studying outside the office have you discovered?
If you are a pastor or a leader, you deliver sermons, talks, and presentations. And you probably spend significant time preparing them. So it makes sense to deliver them in ways that make them sticky, that is, stick in the listeners’ minds and hearts. In this post I share some science based insight to consider as you prepare your talks and sermons.
Tips to improve how much people remember your sermons and talks:
- Remember how much of the listener’s brain is dedicated toward visual processing.
- God created our brains so that about 20% is dedicated solely to visual processing (the back part called the occipital lobe). Add to that the parts of the brain that indirectly deal with visual processing and almost 50% of our brain is dedicated to the visual directly or indirectly. So, a lot of brain real estate is ready for visual stimulation. This insight alone should make us think how to maximize the visual in our talks and presentations.
- Use color in your power point presentations as much as possible.
- If you’ve ever wondered why Facebook and Twitter use blue, well, the brain really likes the color blue. Color evokes emotion and feelings. Color improves retention and enhances learning.
- Use pictures over text.
- The old adage a picture is worth a thousand words is based in neuroscience because of number 1 above. Pictures are easier on the brain than words are. It takes twice as long to process and recognize words as it does to do the same for pictures. One study found that we can process pictures 10 times faster than blinking the eye.
- And faces…God hard-wired our brains to respond to faces. When we were born the first thing we focused on were faces. And a specific part of the brain is dedicated to facial recognition.
- If you only hear a piece of information, a few days later you will only remember 10% of it. But if a picture were added to it, your recall increases to 65%. And you can remember up to 2,000 pictures with little learning. That’s not true with learning words. So, use pictures in you presentation.
- When you must use text, use short words.
- We’ve all probably endured someone deliver a talk with powerpoints filled with words. And you probably forgot everything. Why is that a problem? It’s because we actually process words we see using the auditory brain pathways. So, when you are listening to someone give a talk, we’re actually having to use our auditory pathways doubly, to listen and to process the words from the screen. We’re actually switching our attention back and forth.
- So, do you eliminate words from your presentations? No. But when you do use them, use short ones, draw attention to them with circles, arrows, etc., and be consistent with each slide (don’t have a different layout each time).
It’s amazing how a few tweaks in your talks can improve listener retention.
What have you done that has helped your listener retain more of what you say?
How much time should we pastors spend preparing a sermon? Recently I watched a video where a famous pastor answered that question. His response, “I study and read all the time and it takes me about one to two hours to put a sermon together.” Yikes! When I heard that I felt guilty because there’s no way I can prepare a sermon that quickly. I’m sure this pastor’s heart was right, but I wish he had qualified himself more. I doubt very many of us are that speedy. Here are some thoughts on sermon prep time.
In Haddon Robinson’s book, Biblical Sermons, he wrote that experienced preachers he surveyed spent an average of 16 hours preparing. That sounds more like it to me. That’s probably my average and I’ve been preaching for 25 years. Thom Rainer has an interesting post here from a survey pastors took.
So, how much time should you spend? It depends.
It depends on…
- how long you’ve been in ministry. If you been in ministry several years, you have a backlog of study material. If you haven’t you will probably need to set aside more study time. I did in my early ministry years.
- how well you’ve catalogued your previous study notes, sermons, and materials.
- how well you manage your time.
- what’s happening around you…sometimes unexpected family and ministry demands arise that require our time that we otherwise would have spent on sermon prep. No need to wallow in guilt when that happens.
- your personality…some pastors have the gift of gab and can ‘make up stuff on the fly’ :), some of us don’t; some personalities require the preacher to process what he wants to say more thoroughly.
Here are a few ideas to consider as you answer this question for yourself.
- Schedule your study and prep time during your best, most alert hours.
- Set reasonable expectations. An hour or two is too little time for most just as 35 hours is probably too much.
- Use computer tools readily available. I own a Mac and use both Accordance and Logos. I rarely use paper books. These tools have made my study time more efficient.
- Trust God to use your faithful preparation. Seldom do ministry demands allow us to study as much as we’d like. We must do our best and trust the Holy Spirit to fill in the gaps.
How much time do you spend preparing your sermon?