If you’ve ever spoken in front a group, tried to motivate a team, or if you prepare messages almost every week like many of us do, you’ve probably wondered what makes for a great talk.
In fact, you’ve probably asked questions like these: What’s the difference between a talk that flops and a talk that people still buzz about years later? What’s the difference between a merely good message and incredibly great message? What’s the difference between a sermon that changes someone’s life and one that no one can remember even as they drive out of the parking lot?
If you’re like me, those questions might even bother you. I hope they do. They haunt me.
And yet every week gifted communicators kill the messages they bring by making at least seven predictable, fixable mistakes. The good news is that once you identify the mistakes, you can address them.
7 Easy Ways to Ruin Your Talk
I’m writing from the perspective of a Christian who speaks. And as I wrote about here, I realize that the Holy Spirit is involved in a special way when we speak. He redeems terrible talks and converts people through his power, not our persuasive words. I get that. But that shouldn’t be your fallback week after week.
The Holy Spirit’s work is not an excuse for laziness. It’s also no excuse for failing to develop a skill set that supports your gifting. So if you’re at all interested in honing your gift set, identify and then address the seven mistakes communicators make that almost always ruin a message:
Here’s a tension every communicator faces: people will only ask you to do things that take away the time you’ve set aside to prepare your message, then they’ll criticize you for not being prepared.
I’m not slamming people. It’s just human nature.
That’s why you have to be exceptionally self-disciplined in setting aside time free from interruption to work on your talks. Yes, your inbox will fill up. Yes, the people who want to meet with you will be disappointed. And no, nobody is ever going to email you and ask you “Did you take eight hours today to work on your message?”
So grow up. And take responsibility for becoming an excellent communicator. Eventually, people will thank you and understand you are making a valuable investment.
2. Poorly constructed introductions
Too many sermon introductions begin with a “Good morning,” and then maybe a weather report and some banter that’s supposed to create rapport. I used to do this too until I realized that, as natural as it is, it’s not nearly the best way to connect with your audience (unless maybe you’re a guest preacher and need to connect with people you don’t know).
You’ve got about 30 seconds to capture people’s interest or lose them. The best way to do this is to establish common ground.
- Tell a story.
- Talk about a tension or problem everyone faces.
- Introduce the subject in a way that establishes why it matters.
- Orient people to your topic (talk about the series, where you’re at and why it matters).
The truth is that too many communicators actually don’t think about how they will start. Change that. Even the mere act of intentionally thinking through your introduction will make it better.
3. Stories that go nowhere or everywhere
Stories are among the most powerful and memorable devices a communicator has. But there’s an art to storytelling.
I am not a natural storyteller, so I have to work on ensuring I have enough stories to support a message. Some of you have the opposite problem. You have so many stories that you could fill 30 minutes with stories without even trying.
I know my challenge is to find a story that supports the point I’m trying to make … otherwise I will end up telling a story that goes nowhere just so I have a story in my talk.
If you’re a story person, your challenge will be to cut the number of stories you tell down to the level where each one supports a key point in your message. Otherwise, your stories will end up going everywhere and people will completely lose your point (assuming you have one).
4. Too many points
Every topic is a jungle. There are so many things you could say when you give a talk. A great talk focuses on the one thing you must say. That’s really your job: to take a vast subject and zero in on the essence of what is most important. And it’s incredibly hard work. It takes far more work to be clear than it does to be confusing.
When pressed for time, here’s what most of us do: We take five or six points that are interesting and staple them together, and we call it our talk.
The more difficult thing to do is to distill all your learning into a single sentence around which you build the entire talk.
If you want some examples of how bottom lines work, you can access our Starve the Monster series from Connexus Church for free here. If you click on the "Discuss" button, you’ll see the bottom line for every week above the study questions. It’s hard to find a single sentence that crystallizes all your thoughts, but it’s so worth doing. (My favorite bottom line of that series, by the way, is the bottom line from Part 3.)
5. No clear call to action
Most messages focus on what people need to know. As a result, most communicators fail to answer a crucial question: What are people supposed to do with what they’ve heard? Are people supposed to think differently? Well, that’s good. But it’s so vague.
Here are two recent calls to action at Connexus, where I serve. During the Climate Change series, Jeff Henderson challenged people to ask three people (and God) this question: "What’s it like to be on the other side of me?" I did, and it generated several hours of amazing conversation.
During Skeptics Wanted, I told people it kind of lacked integrity to dismiss a book they hadn’t read and challenged people to read the Gospel of Luke in 24 days, one chapter each day.
Because the calls to actions in those messages were clear, people did something as a result of being in the room. Doing is almost always more powerful than simply hearing.
6. Crash landings
I’ve been guilty of this too many times: crash landing a message. In the same way communicators don’t pre-plan their introduction, many of us fail to think about how we’ll end a message. So we crash land it. Better to think it through.
These days, I usually close by reminding people of the call to action, reflecting on what will happen if they do it (some inspiration) and then often repeating the bottom line of the message.
You can create your own pattern for endings, but the point is to have an intentional ending, not an accidental ending.
7. Resistance to feedback
I realize how terribly painful it is to listen to a talk you’ve given—or worse, to watch a video of you giving the talk.
After decades of public communication, I still don’t like the sound of my own voice. And I think I look like a complete geek on video. It’s painful to watch and listen to myself.
You know what most communicators do because of this? They never watch or listen to themselves.
Question: Why would you expect people to watch you speak if you won’t watch you speak?
You have to become methodical about evaluating yourself. Watch. Listen. And create a system for feedback. Every Tuesday, six of us meet to review the weekend service. And everyone gets a chance to critique my message. Yes, it hurts sometimes. But I want to get better. I have to get better.
Read your inbox, too. Don’t be defensive, but humbly ask God to let all feedback grow you as a person and as a speaker.
The more open to feedback you are, the better you will become.