5 Questions Pastors Neglect in Sermon Prep

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?”
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.

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