If there’s one thing you never set out to be as a leader or communicator, it’s boring.
And yet everyone who communicates, preaches or even tries to persuade someone of an idea has discovered that sinking sense that you’ve lost your audience.
How exactly does that happen?
I’ve been communicating professionally since I was 16 years old in radio, law and for the last two decades, preaching and speaking, and over the years have become a student of what engages people and what doesn’t.
I learned the principles below because at one point or another, I violated all of them.
Here are 7 factors that disengage an audience that are so easy to miss if you’re not looking for them.
1. You haven’t understood or empathized with your audience
There is no such thing as a ‘generic’ audience; you really can’t connect with your audience if you don’t understand them.
Recently I spent some time with a friend talking about a conference we’re both speaking at.
Because I knew the audience better than he did, he spent 40 minutes asking me exactly who would be in the audience, what their hopes and fears are, what they struggle with and how he should approach them.
I was amazed by this for a few reasons.
First, my friend is a multiple New York Times bestselling author and speaks to large influential audiences all the time. If anyone could just waltz in and speak, he could.
Second, even though he has far more offers to speak than he can possibly accept, he is infinitely interested in the audiences he speaks to.
The fact that he’s so in demand, so good at what he does and that he cares deeply about his audience is likely all connected.
The more deeply you care about your audience, the more deeply they’ll care about what you say.
2. Focusing on what people need to know, not on what people want to know
There’s a tension for every communicator between talking to people about what they want to know and talking to people about what they need to know.
If you want to draw a crowd, it’s easy to focus on what people want to know.
But every communicator knows sometimes you just need to tell people what they need to know, even if they don’t want to hear it.
That’s an especial challenge for preachers.
If you always preach about what people want to know, you’ll likely miss what people need to know.
If you only focus on what people need to know, people have a way of tuning you out.
When people tune you out, it might not be evidence that you’re being faithful (as many preachers claim). It might just be evidence you’re being ineffective
So what do you do?
Here’s where I’ve landed. I try to discern what people want, and then I deliver what people need.
For example, few people want to hear about what the Bible has to say about money or sex.
But as a communicator, if I drill down on why God gave us instruction in this area and look for the benefit God intends to bring to people’s lives through it, I’ve then isolated what people will want to hear and can better deliver what they need to hear.
3. You haven’t described a problem people want to solve
The problem with a lot of communication is that it doesn’t start with a problem.
Too often, communicators or writers just start.
Your audience is asking one question: why should I listen? Why should I read further? I have problems to solve and you’re not helping me.
Counter that explicitly.
If almost always start any talk I’m doing describing a problem people face—at work, at home, in their relationship with God or in their relationship with each other.
How do you do that? Describe the problem in detail: ie. You’re so frustrated with God because He says he’s a God of love, but you read the Old Testament and beg to differ. And you wonder if you can even trust a God like that.
If you really want people to drill down on the issues, take the next step. Make the problem worse. Describe it in such detail that people are no longer sure there’s a solution to it.
If you want to see this in action, I spend the first ten minutes of my message on violence in the Old Testament explaining the problem and then ‘making it worse’ before I address it.
You can watch that message here.
4. You didn’t expressed an old idea in a fresh way
For the record, Solomon was right, there isn’t anything new under the sun.
None of us truly speaks about anything new.
As a result, it’s easy to fall into cliches and common descriptions of issues everyone’s trying to address.
For example, I almost called point 2 of this blog post “You’re answering questions nobody is asking.” But I realized that as you skimmed the article you would think “I’ve heard that a thousand times” and tune out.
So I changed the expression of the point to “Focusing on what people need to know, not on what people want to know.”
It’s a little fresher.
Again, that’s not a brand new idea, but it’s a more unique expression of it.
If your ideas are simply retreads of other people’s ideas, people will tune out.
5. You haven’t crafted your words well enough to make them memorable
I spoke to a couple a few weeks ago about a series I preached four years ago.
They’re in their twenties, so that’s almost one fifth of their life in the past.
They quoted the bottom line of that series to me and asked me to use it again at their wedding.
The bottom line was simply this: Like is an emotion. Love is a decision.
It’s hard to believe someone remembers something you said four years earlier, but it happens.
They then told me they want their life together to be built on a decision to love each other, not an emotion they’re feeling. What’s so powerful to me as a pastor is that single line contained the direction for an entire six part series whose ideas they were able to recall. (If you’re wondering, that isn’t available online right now. It might be again soon.)
The power of carefully crafted phrases is that they’re memorable, and memorable phrases keep going to work years after you’ve finished speaking them.
How do you craft memorable phrases? I outline the process here.
6. You don’t personally own the message
There was a season when cool church was enough.
But people are tired of slick. They’re suspicious of polish.
In many ways, authentic is the new cool.
One of the keys to authenticity is personally owning everything you say. People want to know you believe what you’re saying.
In a world of spin where so much is sold, people are looking for real.
When you own the message—when it comes from the core of who you are—it resonates.
So own your message.
That means you’ve processed it deeply enough that it has become part of who are, not just something you say.
7. You’re relying too heavily on your notes
In public speaking, people won’t believe you own the message if you’re reading it.
It comes across as a press release. Or a statement someone else prepared. Or something you think they should believe, but you don’t believe yourself.
I know that’s tough for people who are tied to manuscripts.
Please hear me: reading from your notes doesn’t mean you’re insincere, it just means people often think you are.
So is there help? You bet.
If you want to learn how to free yourself from speaking with notes, I shared a 5 step method on how to do that here. It’s exactly how I got freed up from my notes.
Want the heart of it?
It’s this: don’t memorize your talk. Understand it.
You don’t memorize your conversations before you have them because you understand them.
So understand your next talk.
You can always talk about things you understand.
Personally, my go-to resource for learning how to improve my preaching has become Preaching Rocket (affiliate link). I have learned so much from Jeff Henderson and the team there over the years.
In the meantime, let’s share some learning. What are some other things you’ve seen that lose an audience?