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Keeping attention and making an impact: A few thoughts from an “old” teacher

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I’ve been teaching for 34 years so far. Three were in a big public high school trying to teach Social Studies (think French Revolution, Louis Riel, and Canadian politics), Geography, and Psychology. The past 31 have been in a Bible college teaching Old Testament and Theology. I still have so much to learn about teaching—and I am overjoyed to watch gifted teachers and preachers (especially young teachers and preachers) who are able to keep people’s attention while making a real and significant impact with their words.

I have also watched others who have worked so hard preparing well but it seems their impact is blunted—at least from what I can see as I watch them. To use a not very Anabaptist metaphor, it is like trying to shoot at a bear with a shotgun at 200 yards. There might be a loud sound, but the little pellets scatter here and there with only a few grazing the bear with little effect.

If there is anything I’ve learned about teaching/presenting/preaching, it is that you need to first get and keep people’s attention if you want to make any positive impact at all. I’ve also learned that unless we make a real impact, our presentations will be like a loud shotgun blast. We notice it but not much happens.

So here are a few thoughts for those of us who are called to this kind of work. While many people think that presenters are in a monologue with their audience, every good speaker knows that it is actually a dialogue. Public speaking is like playing catch with someone, but if all you do is throw a ball without receiving it back, you will (or rather should) stop throwing it.

Let the first bite be engaging. In the first five minutes, the audience is making a decision about you and your presentation.

So here are a few suggestions about getting and keeping audience attention:

  1. Actually get the audience’s attention. One of my former bosses always cited Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, who apparently said that the first and the last bites are the most important. I’m not sure exactly how that works in the food business, but it is certainly true of public speaking. Make sure that you actually get people’s attention. Let the first bite be engaging. In the first five minutes, the audience is making a decision about you and your presentation. Will this be worth giving their attention to? If you aren’t successful in getting their attention at the beginning, it will be difficult to gain it later. But the caveat here is that you need to get their attention in a way that fits your purpose. If you use a gimmick only loosely connected to your purpose, the audience might remember the gimmick but have no idea what your presentation was about.
  2. There are many ways to get people’s attention including taking new looks at old topics, asking new questions about seemingly obvious topics, or introducing interesting new information. Cognitive dissonance is when we have new experiences or encounter new information that doesn’t fit perfectly into our settled understanding of the world. Our brains have a natural energy to try to resolve this dissonance. Creating a level of dissonance without producing instability or chaos is an art form worth working at.
  3. “Listen” to the audience. All through your presentation, the audience is communicating to you through their eyes, their postures, their laughter, their solemn silence, and so on. If you are listening for these cues, you can tell when they are right with you, when they have checked out, when you need to slow down, speed up, or get them to say something out loud. Notice the signals— or ignore them to your own peril.
  4. Encourage responses. While it is difficult to find ways for listeners to respond in the midst of spoken presentations, if you make no effort here, you will fall victim to our ever-decreasing attention spans. Personal involvement re-sets all of us as listeners to lean in. Have listeners read part of the text out loud together. Invite listeners to actually speak out loud at points. Have listeners give a brief response to the person beside them about what they find new, interesting, or challenging in the text. Repeat key phrases together. Say “Amen!” Now, there are some listeners who prefer sitting quietly and are uncomfortable chatting with those beside them, but we become community together when we talk to others and when we listen to others. As a church, we are a worshipping community, a learning community, a caring community, and a missional community. Even a (mostly) one-way presentation that invites listener responses can encourage growth in multiple areas. We need to make the most of this opportunity.
  5. Let the audience impact your presentation—but not too much. Public speaking is like trying to lead people on a hike. If all you do is stare at your map and run up the trail to the destination without looking back, you will get to the top of the mountain mostly alone. But if you actually turn around and look at the hikers you’re trying to lead, you will find that some of them are with you, while others are not anywhere in sight because they stopped to drink water, check their phones, or rest at the side of the trail. Most often the leader of a hike needs to stop regularly along the way, check in with the hikers, and make decisions about how far we can all go today. If not, a bunch of hikers will check out and not re-engage with you next time.

We become community together when we talk to others and when we listen to others.

This is the same principle for speaking. Check in with your audience by looking up at them, varying your physical posture by taking some steps to the right or left, leaning forward, and/ or creating some natural “rest” or “refocusing” breaks. People’s ability to listen intensely is limited just like people cannot hike intensely for too long. They need to stop for water, an energy bar, and to hear some brief encouragement about why they should keep going.

However, we cannot end the hike after the first big hill and the first complaint from someone in the group about being tired. We carry a vision for the hike. We have been given task. We are here to encourage and bless, but we also want to instill fortitude and resilience, so our hikers can go beyond what they feel capable of. While we might be discouraged because a listener in the back row closed their eyes, we carry on.

Someone asked me once how long a sermon or a one-way teaching talk should be. My response was: “You should only talk as long as most people are actively listening.” There is no point in planning a 15-kilometre hike with hikers whose capacity is only 5 kilometres. However, with careful planning and listening to the group, people can often hike a bit further than they expected. However, there is a point when even with our best efforts, people will stop actively listening and we need to realize that pushing further will actually undermine the joy and accomplishments already achieved. If we just push on further and further, our hikers/listeners might make it today, but they will likely tune out next time.

Until you find something worth saying, you are at best being an entertainer.

Our second goal is to actually have an impact on the audience. Here are a few tips to more likely meet this goal:

  1. Have something important to say. When it comes to presenting for impact, the key thing is not your charismatic style, your super interesting and funny stories, or your jumping up on a chair— but actually having something worth saying. Until you find something worth saying, you are at best being an entertainer. Everything depends on this—do you have something worth saying that could truly impact people? The listener will still have to decide to listen, engage, and live into this new possibility—but they are giving you their valuable time. Again, honour everyone’s time by bringing something worth saying.
  2. Don’t have too many important things to say: There are limits to people’s capacities to engage deeply. If a hiking guide stops too many times on a hike for pictures, the group will remember the hike as a blur rather than a deeply embedded memory. Most often one beautiful view will have much more impact than five that we have raced past. Now if our presentation is a sermon, that one beautiful and enduring view should come directly out of the biblical text. We shouldn’t decide on the beautiful view we want to share and then find a biblical text to support it. Most effective sermons have one significant thing at the centre—one thing truly important enough to ponder and reflect on.
  3. Structure your talk for maximum impact. While people who teach semester-long courses have some extra freedom here, those of us making single presentations in front of an audience need to plan our presentations carefully. Once we have something worth saying (a beautiful view worth sharing), that view has to be front facing all the way through our presentation. If we are preaching on a biblical text, we also need to make sure that the text itself is fronted. If our personal illustrations or some peripheral information is more engaging and interesting than the text itself, we have placed something else in front of the text. The text itself (and the ultimate author of that text!) should captivate our attention.
  4. Bring honest passion to the presentation. I once was listening to a teacher complaining about how the students hated a certain course because the material was so boring. I asked him what he thought of the material and he said he found it super boring as well. I’m not sure what I said in response, but I do know that normally people will be no more excited about a topic than you are. Unless you can bring honest passion to the topic, it will be hard to keep anyone’s attention. If the leader of a hike is not honestly excited about the hike, it is hard to imagine the group being excited. Passion is a sort of energy drink that helps overcome hardship and the suffering involved in the journey. The less passion, the less energy there is to overcome these hardships.
  5. Finish well. We come back now to Dave Thomas’ words about the first and last bites being the most important. I often find myself rushing to finish—but the research says STOP and BREATHE here. Take in the view. Finish well. Don’t introduce new things. Circle back to the introduction and how you got their attention in the first place. Try to bring a sense of both completion and non-completion. The hike is over. You’ve walked up the hill (or at least to a key viewpoint). But at the same time, we should leave with one thing in our heads and hearts that we will carry forward and think more about because it is not yet complete. We have received something to ponder. That is what Jesus so often modeled in his teaching, and there’s no better example than that.

So to conclude, every speaker wants to capture attention and make an impact. What is listed here is all about our human efforts—and we are responsible to do our best in this area. However, for those of us preaching and teaching the Bible, we know that all of our efforts are meaningless without the Holy Spirit illuminating the minds and hearts of our listeners. We do everything we can, but everything begins and ends with that Holy Spirit working both in us and in the listeners. While we plan, prepare, and speak as well as we are able, we also pray for the Holy Spirit to fill us—and then for the Holy Spirit to work in the listeners. That will ultimately be what makes the greatest eternal impact!

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