Grab Me or I’m Gone!
Any public speaker has about 30 seconds to win over their audience. In these first critical moments, your listeners will form a first impression. Each listener will bring their own conscious and unconscious expectations about you and what you will say. In this very short time, they will confirm and reevaluate the preconceived ideas they had about you. This first impression will become the lens that the rest of your preaching will be seen through. Numerous psychological studies have shown that the first impressions formed in these few seconds are very hard to change–even in the face of actual facts. If you don’t make a positive first impression, everything else you say or do will be less effective.
Where to Begin?
In my experience coaching both people who give secular presentations and those who are involved with preaching, it seems like time is always a precious commodity. Often I am asked, “What should I improve if I only have an extra 5 minutes? My answer is always the same: start at the beginning. The results you get from 5 minutes spent improving your introduction will far out weigh the results from 5 minutes spent with any other part of your preaching. If you want to improve your preaching, the beginning is a very good place to start.
Don’t Start with the Start
Most first time speakers (and some seasoned veterans) will start writing their homily with–you guessed it–the beginning. The problem with beginnings is that you need to know where you are going when you start. There are as many styles for writing a homily as there are preachers. However, you should almost always write your introduction at the end! It is only at the end when you know exactly where you are going and how you will get there. You will have all the information you need to decide on the best way to convince people to hop on for the ride.
How to Begin?
Should you start with a a joke? A question? A startling statement? A story?
Really, you can start with almost anything… as long as you make me care! This is true about preaching in general, but it is especially true about the introduction. In the first 30 seconds you simply, necessarily, absolutely must make me care. There are several methods to do this, and each one depends on: the personality of the preacher, the topic being addressed, the general context of the talk (like the event or venue). In the end, if your audience doesn’t care, then you are quite frankly wasting their time and yours.
How to Make Them Care?
1. You can use surprise–an emotion that increases alertness and causes focus–to grab attention, but surprise doesn’t last. After surprise, you have to generate more interest and curiosity.
2. The easiest way to create true interest is with a story. People love people. We are even naturally interested in what happens to a made up character. We also have a psychological need for resolution. Like a joke, stories have a setup and a punchline. They have a build and resolution. It is the build that creates interest. Then, tying back to this story throughout the homily gives a sense of continuity and familiarity.
3. We can engage people’s curiosity over a long period of time by opening “gaps” in their knowledge and then filling them. Start with a mystery, question, problem, or unknown fact so the audience feels a need for resolution.
4. Make it relevant! Even the most dedicated members of your church are on the look out for the “WIFM.” That is, “what’s in it for me?” This is not necessarily a negative or greedy attitude. It can be, “how can this homily help me grow?” or “what can I learn from this talk?” The WIFM means that your listeners will be on the lookout for ideas that are related to their sphere of concern. One of the preacher’s jobs is to make the Gospel relevant. It is not always easy for someone to see how abstract or general ideas impact their sphere of concern. Simply stating how something impacts daily life is enough to help someone care. Help people to not just understand what the Gospel means, but how it applies to the things that are important to them.
Show them from the start that what you have to say is worth caring about.