If you write anything for a living, you know the pressure that comes with staring at a blank screen with a deadline approaching.
If you communicate within the context of the local church, like I do, you quickly discover that Sundays come around whether you’re ready or not.
I get asked regularly what I do to prepare for my messages, and there are a few things I practice and that I’ve seen other leaders do that I think can gain any communicator an edge.
They’re not talked about that often, but they work for me and for other communicators I admire. But even more than that, it took me years to get there.
Here’s to shortcuts. Five of them actually—for every communicator and writer.
1. Focus initially on the quality of your thinking instead of the quality of your writing
So how do you get to a killer message, article or post? You think your way there before you write your way there.
Look, I admire great writers. They can make anything sound interesting, fun or even meaningful.
But I appreciate great thinking even more.
So will your audience.
A great idea adequately expressed is worth more than a bad idea eloquently expressed.
If you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.
If you’re trying to develop fresh angles, perspectives and insights, time is your best friend. I often start thinking through a sermon series or book a year or two in advance. I’ll keep notes in Evernote and just let the ideas simmer, refining them or adding to them regularly.
If time is your best friend, change of venue is your next best friend. I personally find that ideas get better not when I’m sitting at a computer keyboard, but when I’m doing something else: cycling, cutting the grass, washing the car, listening to a podcast or music or even cooking. Something in the back of my brain will connect dots I didn’t think connected.
When that happens, all you need is a place to record the idea. Again, Evernote is so handy. I have recorded dozens of voice files in Evernote during bike rides. It’s a convenient way to save key ideas I don’t want to lose without stopping.
This approach may not get you to next Sunday or your Wednesday deadline, but don’t get discouraged.
Instead, this week, why not start keeping notes on future series, articles and posts? Use whatever system you want, but just write your ideas down and let them gestate.
If you keep notes like this and refine your thinking over weeks and months, you’ll develop a catalogue of great ideas that can be put into use at any point in the future.
A good idea gets better over time. A bad idea gets worse over time. So give yourself time as a communicator or writer.
When you jot down your ideas and revisit them as time passes, you’ll have a much clearer sense of which is which, and the pressure to get to Sunday disappears. Plus you can keep refining them and making them better.
2. Spend a lot of time on a few key words or thoughts
When you’re keeping your journal of ideas and concepts for the future, keep them simple.
My notes look like a series of key phrases and ideas that I keep refining until they resonate.
If your thinking is strong (see #1 above), then the next most important thing is to phrase your thinking so it’s both memorable and impactful.
Many communicators I know and respect summarize their thinking in a bottom line: a short, memorable statement that outlines the main point of the message you’re delivering.
Here are some examples of bottom lines I’ve written recently:
Changing your mind can change your life. (For a message on Romans 12 on renewing your mind.)
Moral compromise compromises you. (For a future message on relative morality.)
God is bigger than your circumstances, and he’s better than your than your circumstances. (For a message on how to pray through tough circumstances.)
It can take me weeks or months of letting an idea simmer to reduce to a simple statement like the statements above, but it’s so worth it.
I find that once I have a key idea stated as simply as that, the message becomes relatively easy to write, because the statement has so much pre-loaded into it.
If you want more, I outline in detail how to write killer bottom lines here.
Why is this so important? It’s simple. If you’re not clear on what your message is about, no one else will be either.
If you can’t state the main point of your message in a simple phrase, then you don’t understand it well enough to deliver it.
3. Test your key ideas on a team
I personally do a lot of my writing alone, but I employ a team at key stages.
Some of my favourite writing moments happen when I walk a rough draft of the bottom lines and a short summary of the talk or series I’m working on into a meeting and bounce them off my team.
Three things happens when I present my outline to a team:
1. I learn which ideas resonate and which don’t. Better to find this out now than when giving the talk.
2. The team will frequently offer better ways to phrase key ideas than I’ve developed on my own. This makes the message or talk far better.
3. Verbally processing my ideas in front of a team often helps me discover better ways to say things than I would have discovered on my own.
I like to walk ideas into a meeting like this a month or two before I need to finish the message.
This works when you’re writing a piece too. Bouncing it off other people will almost always make your thinking and phrasing better.
Then I go back and finish up the talk on my own, sometimes checking back in, but sometimes not if the talk or piece is now resonating well.
4. Think more about God and your audience than you think about yourself
Most of us naturally over-focus on ourselves.
Will I deliver this well?
Will people laugh at my jokes?
Will I knock it out of the park?
I have those thoughts too. But when I focus on them, I tend to do less well than when I focus on two other elements: God and my audience.
A sermon is not really about how you ‘did’ as a communicator; it’s about God’s interaction with his people.
A talk isn’t about how you ‘did’ as a speaker; it’s about whether you helped your audience.
Ditto with a book.
Put a filter on your thoughts about you.
For sure, you need some personal elements in your talk…some stories, and maybe even some humour. But even while those elements are about you, they’re not. They’re about God using you and about your audience.
When you take the focus off of yourself, your insecurities lessen their grip. You begin to serve God and serve your audience through your communication, and you find you actually help people far more.
5. Focus on understanding your message, not memorizing it
This one’s for speakers.
How do you memorize a 45 minute talk?
I have no idea. But I regularly give 45 minute talks without using notes.
The best piece of advice I’ve ever received on how to ‘learn’ a talk is this: don’t memorize your talk, understand it.
Think about the next conversation you have today at work or with your family. You don’t memorize what you’re going to say before you say it. Instead, you understand what you’re trying to accomplish (I need to talk about the third quarter results, or what we’re doing for dinner.)
A talk is obviously more complex, but not much more.
I think of my talk as having 4 or 5 larger components:
A story or bridge or some kind to get to the main point
The main point
If you do this, all you have to remember is the big idea of what fits in each part of the talk. Sometimes it’s as simple as thinking “How do I get to the main point again? Right, the story about last summer’s vacation!”
Personally, I will write out some stories and key phrasing in detail, but I don’t write a full manuscript any more.
I just write enough so I understand what I’m going to say.
That takes the pressure off of you as a communicator, because if you forget something the only person who knows is you. And the talk is shorter, so everyone wins. I wrote more about this subject in the post How To Deliver A Talk Without Using Notes.
More on Writing and Preaching
If you want more on writing, New York Times best selling author and preacher Mark Batterson shares his method of writing with me in this podcast. You can you listen directly on iTunes here or simply listen below.
Jeff Henderson, Lead Pastor of Gwinnett Church and founder of Preaching Rocket, gives a ton of great tips for preachings in this interview. You can listen below or go direct to iTunes here and listen to Episode 16 of my leadership podcast.
What tips have you discovered for better communicating and writing?
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