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Keeping your audience’s attention: 8 things you can do in advance

This post is part of the series on Preaching for youth. Teenagers are notorious for their short attention span. Yet I have seen them listen to speakers for 45 minutes and even more, fully interested and captivated. The reason? These preachers managed to keep their attention. So what’s their secret?

There are some things you can do in advance, when preparing your sermon, to ensure you’ll keep your audience hooked. I’ll discuss these in today’s post. But there are also things you can do while giving your sermon, to make sure you keep the attention or to get it back when you’ve lost it. We’ll talk about these next time.

If you want to prepare a sermon that will keep your audience’s attention, here are 8 things you can do:

1. Make it personal

When your audience feels like they know you, they will be more inclined to listen to what you have to say. So when preparing your talk, don’t forget to include some personal stories and experiences, maybe even some photos or videos. You can read more about the importance of making it personal in another post I wrote.

2. Make it interesting

A great way to connect with your audience is to talk about something that interests them. Teens are no different. If you can somehow link your message to issues they’re dealing with, to stuff they’re seeing every day, or to things they know and care about, it will go a long way in keeping their attention. You can for instance use emotions (feeling lonely, being insecure), media (movies, TV shows, music), known problems (peer pressure, being bullied) or hobbies and interests (gadgets, celebrities, sports). Don’t ‘force’ the connection between your message and any of these interests, make it a natural one.

3. Tell stories

People love stories. It’s like our brain is wired for stories! When someone starts to tell us a story, no matter how clumsily, we always want to know how it ends. Use this to grab attention and incorporate a few stories into your sermon. And if you’re a great story-teller, why not try to make your whole sermon narrative-style?

4. Make them do something

Another way to engage your audience during your sermon is by making them do something. It can be something simple like taking polls (either in writing or by raising hands), or asking them to introduce themselves to someone they don’t know. You can also think about more elaborate actions, like lighting a candle, writing a prayer, discussing a question with someone else, etc. The most important thing here is that you prepare this well and think it through. Make sure no one will feel left out, that your instructions are clear, that you don’t ask anyone to do something they don’t feel comfortable with, etc.

 

Asking students to do something, like writing a prayer, is a good way of keeping their attention

5. Challenge them, but not too much

There are two extremes here that you need to avoid. If your sermon is too difficult, you will lose your audience’s attention because they’ll feel it’s not for them. But if you make it too easy, if you only tell stuff your students already know, they’ll get bored as well. The trick is to challenge them to think, to engage their minds, but at a level they can manage. The best way to do this is to really analyze your audience beforehand. What do they know about the topic, what is their attitude, what is their educational level, what is their cultural and religious background (for instance: did the majority grow up in church or not).

6. Use more senses

People love watching a screen, it’s like a magnet. But it’s also hard for our brains to process spoken words and written words at the same time. But pictures are very effective, so try to use appropriate pictures (or video, moving images) up on the screen when you’re talking. If there’s anyway you can incorporate something to touch or to smell, that would be great as well. Also, don’t underestimate the effect of music, it can truly touch people. I’ve used music in my sermon several times and often with good results, at least attention-wise.

7. Start great

While it’s not a good idea to use your best ‘material’ in the first five minutes, a good introduction of your sermon is essential to keeping your audience’s attention. They will start out with listening to you, so the trick is to keep them listening. People feel sometimes that they should start with a joke or something funny, but I don’t think that necessarily works. What does work is to start with something that makes your audience somehow emotionally involved. They have to start caring about you, about your topic, about what you are going to say. For me, that means I often start with something personal or a story. I’ll get deeper into this in another post.

8. End great

Even the best preachers can lose their audience in the end, because they don’t know how to end a sermon well. They either end abruptly, start summarizing or repeating their message, or they end with some well-intended clichés. When you’re writing your sermon, think about how you want to end it. Really, spend some time on this until you come up with a great way to end your sermon. Do you want your students to do something, to think about something, to realize something? What do you want to achieve and what do you need to end with to get there?

Also, I came across this post by Jonathan Mckee about Speaking to a generation with a short attention span. While he approaches it a little differently than I do, there’s good stuff in there!

Is keeping your audience hooked something you consciously think about when preparing your sermon? What strategies do you use to ensure they’ll stay awake?

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0 thoughts on “Keeping your audience’s attention: 8 things you can do in advance

  1. Great topic to talk about because how we talk to each generation is going to change. However you list some of the important tips to have. One thing I enjoy doing is reflecting in the scripture passage that I’ll go over with them. Each time I discover something new and it’s important to share that with students. When we can share what we’re passionate about, they might disagree or agree with it, but they’ll be engaged because you are getting personal.

    1. Hey Chris, thanks for stopping by. Oh, I agree with you on the necessity of reflecting on any Scripture we preach about. If we’re not passionate about what we’ve learned from it, it will show in how we talk about it. Passion always shines through in how you preach. So if we haven’t found something to be enthusiastic about, we need to go back and study the text until we do!

  2. […] to keep your audience’s attention when preaching for youth. In the previous post, we looked at several things you can do in advance. Today’ we’ll discuss things you can do while you’re preaching to keep student’s attention […]

  3. […] key point about the ideal length of a sermon is this: if you can hold you audience’s attention, you can preach as long as you need to. Need to, mind you, not want to. Because it’s the message […]

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  5. […] You may wonder how this applies to youth ministry. Here’s just one example: in the chapter on ‘Unexpectedness’ the authors explain how to create an interest. One of the ways to do that is to create a ‘mystery’, to explain a problem in a way that students want to solve it. Our minds are wired such that we want to fill that gap in our knowledge, we want closure. So we keep listening, trying to figure it out until we have a solution. We can use this ‘gap theory’ of curiosity to engage our students when we teach! What a powerful tool to keep their interest… […]

  6. […] their senses, by simply being an attractive speaker, etc. You just have to be intentional about keeping your audience’s attention, both in your preparation and while you’re giving a talk. There are so many things you can do to […]

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