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7 Easy Ways to Ruin an Otherwise Great Sermon, Message or Talk (And How to Fix It)

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If you’ve ever spoken in front of a group, tried to motivate a team, or if you prepare messages almost every week like many of us do, you’ve probably wondered what makes for a great talk.

In fact, you’ve probably asked questions like these:

What’s the difference between a talk that flops and a talk that people still buzz about years later?

What’s the difference between a merely good message and incredibly great message?

What’s the difference between a sermon that changes someone’s life and one that no one can remember even as they drive out of the parking lot?

If you’re like me, those questions might even bother you.

I hope they do. They haunt me.

And yet every week gifted communicators kill the messages they bring by making at least 7 predictable, fixable mistakes.

The good news is that once you identify the mistakes, you can address them.

 7 Easy Ways To Ruin Your Talk

I’m writing from the perspective of a Christian who speaks. And as I wrote about here, I realize that the Holy Spirit is involved in a special way when we speak. He redeems terrible talks and converts people through his power, not our persuasive words. I get that.

But that shouldn’t be your fall back week after week.

The Holy Spirit’s work is not an excuse for laziness. It’s also no excuse for failing to develop a skill set that supports your gifting.

So if you’re at all interested in honing your gift set, identify and then address the 7 mistakes communicators make that almost always ruin a message:

1. Inadequate preparation

Here’s a tension every communicator faces: people will only ask you to do things that take away the time you’ve set aside to prepare your message; then they’ll criticize you for not being prepared.

I’m not slamming people. It’s just human nature.

That’s why you have to be exceptionally self-disciplined in setting aside time free from interruption to work on your talks. Yes your inbox will fill up. Yes the people who want to meet with you will be disappointed. And no, nobody is ever going to email you and ask you “Did you take 8 hours today to work on your message?”

So grow up. And take responsibility for becoming an excellent communicator. Eventually, people will thank you and understand you are making a valuable investment.

2. Poorly constructed introductions

Too many sermon introductions begin with a “Good morning”, and then maybe a weather report and some banter that’s supposed to create rapport. I used to do this too until I realized that as natural as it is, it’s not nearly the best way to connect with your audience (unless maybe you’re a guest preacher and need to connect with people you don’t know).

You’ve got about 30 seconds to capture people’s interest or lose them.

The best way to do this is to establish common ground.

Tell a story.

Talk about a tension or problem everyone faces.

Introduce the subject in a way that establishes why it matters.

Orient people to your topic (talk about the series, where you’re at and why it matters).

The truth is that too many communicators actually don’t think about how they will start. Change that. Even the mere act of intentionally thinking through your introduction will make it better.

3. Stories that go nowhere or everywhere

Stories are among the most powerful and memorable devices a communicator has. But there’s an art to story telling.

I am not a natural storyteller, so I have to work on ensuring I have enough stories to support a message. Some of you have the opposite problem. You have so many stories that you could fill 30 minutes with stories without even trying.

I know my challenge is to find a story that supports the point I’m trying to make…otherwise I will end up telling a story that goes nowhere just so I have a story in my talk.

If you’re a story person, your challenge will be to cut the number of stories you tell down to the level where each one supports a key point in your message. Otherwise, your stories will end up going everywhere and people will completely lose your point (assuming you have one).

4. Too many points

Every topic is a jungle. There are so many things you could say when you give a talk. A great talk focuses on the one thing you must say.

That’s really your job: to take a vast subject and zero in on the essence of what is most important. And it’s incredibly hard work.

It takes far more work to be clear than it does to be confusing.

When pressed for time, here’s what most of us do: we take 5 or 6 points that are interesting and staple them together and we call it our talk.

The more difficult thing to do is to distill all your learning into a single sentence around which you build the entire talk.

If you want some examples of how bottom lines work, you can access our Stress[Less] series for free here. If you click on the each message, you’ll see a Group Questions link that has the bottom line and short summary of every message.

While it’s hard to find a single sentence that crystallizes all your thoughts, it’s so worth doing.

5. No clear call to action

Most messages focus on what people need to know.

As a result, most communicators fail to answer a crucial question: what people are supposed to do with what they’ve heard?

Are people supposed to think differently? Well, that’s good. But it’s so vague.

Here are two recent calls to action at Connexus, where I serve. During the Climate Change series, Jeff Henderson challenged people to ask three people (and God) this question: What’s it like to be on the other side of me.”  I did, and it generated several hours of amazing conversation.

During Skeptics Wanted, I told people it kind of lacked integrity to dismiss a book they hadn’t read, and challenged people to read the Gospel of Luke in 24 days; one chapter each day.

Because the call to actions in those messages were clear, people did something as a result of being in the room. Doing is almost always more powerful than simply hearing.

 6. Crash landings

I’ve been guilty of this too many times: crash landing a message. In the same way communicators don’t pre-plan their introduction, many of us fail to think about how we’ll end a message. So we crash land it.

Better to think it through.

These days, I usually close by reminding people of the call to action, reflecting on what will happen if they do it (some inspiration), and then often repeating the bottom line of the message.

You can create your own pattern for endings, but the point is to have an intentional ending, not an accidental ending.

7. Resistance to feedback

I realize how terribly painful it is to listen to a talk you’ve given, or worse, to watch a video of you giving the talk.

After decades of public communication, I still don’t like the sound of my own voice.  And I think I look like a complete geek on video. It’s painful to watch and listen to myself.

You know what most communicators do because of this?

They never watch or listen to themselves.

Question: why would you expect people to watch you speak if you won’t watch you speak?

You have to become methodical about evaluating yourself. Watch. Listen.

And create a system for feedback. Every Tuesday, six of us meet to review the weekend service. And everyone gets a chance to critique my message. Yes, it hurts sometimes. But I want to get better. I have to get better.

Read your inbox too. Don’t be defensive, but humbly ask God to let all feedback grow you as a person and as a speaker.

The more open to feedback you are, the better you will become.

What Mistakes Do You See?

I hope this is helpful.

What mistakes have you made as a communicator?

What mistakes have you seen others make? How would you address them?

Scroll down and leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you.

7 Easy Ways to Ruin an Otherwise Great Sermon, Message or Talk (And How to Fix It)

46 Comments

  1. aaronbrewer on June 24, 2018 at 7:05 am

    Phenomenal, Carey. So good and relevant. Excited to start The Art of Better Preaching course this week on vacation!

  2. J Smeby on May 9, 2018 at 9:38 am

    We should end with what God has done for us, not what we ought to go out and do–unless it’s spread the Good News. Also, make a recording, listen, re-do, listen, re-do…and on and on, then go preach! Like a musical composition, a sermon ought to be “going somewhere” all the time, converging finally on the end–and all of this movement ought to be easily “taken in” by the members (even if there is some surprise along the way) such that they are carried right along. The ideal is where they know the ending, and then almost can’t wait to get to it, because it’s going to wrap up all of what has been covered.

  3. Jeremy on May 6, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    Carey,
    I always love reading your articles and books. Your insight and wisdom has been invaluable to me as a pastor. In this article, although I agree with everything that you said and found your points either helpful or affirming, I was a bit perplexed by the sentence, “So grow up.” I guess I was a bit thrown off by that statement. It didn’t seem to fit with the tenor of the rest of the article. Could you explain the spirit behind that thought? Blessings, Jeremy

    • Sharon on August 16, 2018 at 1:01 pm

      Yes, I have to agree with Jeremy. I found the statement “so, grow up” a bit off putting as well. I have gone through these 7 mistakes a couple of times and this one always sticks out, like a sore thumb! God Bless!

  4. Valori on May 6, 2018 at 9:06 am

    May I make a suggestion? I know that people identify well when leaders give stories from their own lives, but when a speaker must insert himself, his story, his family, his accomplishments, etc. week after week into every sermon (or lecture), even the most dedicated listener finds frequent excuses to visit the coffee station.

    • Dion on May 6, 2018 at 3:51 pm

      It doesn’t have to be a story about you… “I was reading…” Or “I was watching…” Or “I was listening to…” and here I’m thinking secular, secular MOVIES, music, poetry, books… There are endless stories we can draw on. We just need to JOURNAL them

  5. Ronnie T on May 6, 2018 at 8:10 am

    Thanks for the relevant examples! Great article

  6. Stephen Bedard on November 4, 2017 at 7:15 pm

    Some great points here. Sometimes a little mistake can ruin an otherwise helpful message. Thanks for this.

  7. Sandy Stone on August 19, 2017 at 10:19 am

    Hi Carey, It is hard to believe you don’t like the sound of your own voice. It was one of the first things that attracted me to your incredible content. Your content is incredible, and I would listen and learn from you anyway, but your radio announcer voice makes it so easy. There are those out there who have wonderful teachings to offer, but it pains me to listen to them. I wonder why they don’t get someone else to read their books on audible. I am thankful for your voice. It is a gift, and enhances your teaching. I am especially thankful for the work you share. It is helpful in a number of ways.
    Sandy

  8. glennoftherock on May 5, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    Hey Carey, the link to “Starve the Monster series from Connexus Church for free here.” is broken.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 5, 2017 at 1:27 pm

      Hey Glenn…sorry about that. Sometimes our sermon archive…archives. That one’s not available by video anymore. Sorry!

      • glennoftherock on May 5, 2017 at 1:28 pm

        Thanks man and thank you for all your insights, truly appreciate your work and the effort it takes to produce all this great content. Blessings!

  9. David Barber on March 28, 2016 at 10:26 am

    I don’t get to preach often in the main services (once in two and a half years, I’m a youth pastor), however all of my talks to teens are filtered in this way. A few weeks ago when I delivered one of my talks for the first time in the main service I followed the same pattern. It’s work, but people have remembered what what God wanted them to learn and still are quoting the bottom line, “We need to work harder at working all things for Him.” Thanks for your training. I’ve become a better communicator thanks to Orange resources, you, and Andy Stanley. And when we become a better communicator God wins! Put in the work for that reason alone.

  10. Tommy Arnold on March 26, 2016 at 4:47 pm

    Carey, how do you guys close your messages? Bye heads? Raise Hands? Final prayer? Altar Time? Invite to come to a prayer room?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 26, 2016 at 8:58 pm

      We usually just give people an opportunity to respond personally during prayer. And we often do response cards with follow up later.

      • Tommy Arnold on March 26, 2016 at 9:42 pm

        Thats what we have been trying to do. We are a 2 year old church plant reaching non Christians. Thanks for your podcast. It love it!

  11. Michael Guinn on August 4, 2015 at 9:42 am

    Carey, this is a fantastic article. Short, sweet, to the point, easy to follow, well laid out and I think you’re really nailing most of the points here. I would add one that is my albatross.

    SPEED of delivery and enjoying the PAUSE between sentences or ideas.

    Because I often fall prey to the Freshman’s sermon disease (#4 above), trying to say too much, cover too many bases, all in one sermon, there is a part of me that forgets to slow down and just let it be what it must be. I’m working on writing less breadth, with a deeper, narrower focus, but even before I master that, I just have to slow down and enjoy the pauses a lot more.

    I speak quickly in my daily life and just have to slow down the speed of the tape when I’m in the big, echoey, sanctuary and give folks more time to digest the ideas I’m sharing, ESPECIALLY if there are too many of them! 🙂

    I appreciate that you have highlighted learning to get the banter out of the way and BEGINNING. I have learned that and completely agree. Additionally, the importance of a call to action and avoiding the “drop the mic” ending to a talk.

    You have a lovely, transparent way of sharing what you do well as a preacher, and what you have struggled with. It makes your writing engaging and instructive in just the right ways.

    Keep up the good work. 🙂

  12. christoph on June 4, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    The preacher last Sunday preached to the topic “Some things are better together” He repeated that phrase about 50 times. Most impressive was what he did as “introduction”. Put on an apron, pulled out a kitchen cart with a big bowl. First he filled it with French fries, then added Cheese as well as gravy. Then he mixed it, and said “things are better together” and served dishes of poutine to folks in the audience especially “expecting” ladies.

  13. Bob on May 16, 2015 at 8:18 am

    Excellent article, all good. The only thing I would add is “Be yourself”. God has blessed each of us with our own unique way of being and speaking. Being authentic is a powerful and genuine way to reach others.

  14. Ryan Sargent on February 23, 2015 at 11:33 am

    Used this on Sunday. Sermon felt more natural; more like a conversation. Received positive feedback. Thanks for producing great content! God bless.

  15. ErinErin on February 10, 2015 at 7:00 pm

    >>You can create your own pattern for endings, but the point is to have an intentional ending, not an accidental ending.<<
    Thanks for making this a separate issue. I struggle with openings and know that I could do a better job of setting up the ending. My friend says things like "I'm going to close with this story…" Or "I'll leave you with this point…" Then people are prepared that it is coming to a close. Not sure if I would use those words, but it is a good segue. Do you use something like that? I suppose the other way to do it is to remind people what they just said (three points or…). I did Toastmasters for 10 years before I became a minister but it is easy to forget the basics. Illustrations that are relevant to my sermon are my toughest challenge along with not doing #4.

  16. ErinErin on February 10, 2015 at 6:57 pm

    Ok…good reminders…but…read the book of Luke in 24 days and….what were they supposed to do after that?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 10, 2015 at 8:19 pm

      Come back next week…it’s just part of a weekly dialogue that we keep up every week. The subject shifts, but there’s always an application point.

  17. Jan Shannon on February 6, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    Crash landings, yes, that’s what I do. Thanks for the push, and helpful info, to fix that bit.
    Blessings!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 6, 2015 at 1:33 pm

      Ha ha. I so wish I wasn’t guilty. Less now than in year’s past though!

  18. Patrick on February 6, 2015 at 10:23 am

    Two comments: 1) I think it’s also important to give up the pulpit. Give someone else a chance to speak. There have been times when I have felt like I had nothing to say, not because anything was wrong (I wasn’t unhappy or having a crisis of faith.), but I needed a breath. I needed a Sunday to listen instead of speak.

    2) This one just comes with time, but preachers need to find their own voices. The best preachers I know are the ones who bring the same presence from the dinner table to the pulpit. When someone is quiet and reserved in casual conversation and then goes into the pulpit sounding like James Earl Jones reciting Shakespeare, I think it falls flat. People can feel the disconnect. But that takes time and practice.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 6, 2015 at 11:25 am

      Such great points Patrick…very well said. Thank you!

    • Bob on May 16, 2015 at 8:19 am

      Amen Patrick!

    • Cora on November 3, 2017 at 7:33 am

      Hm, I would like to contradict. I am someone else on the pulpit. I am asking questions and listening at the dinner table, being more quiet than entertaining. But on the pulpit I am enthusiastic and very agile, eloquent and vibrant. But it’s always me!

    • Jarron O'Neal on May 9, 2018 at 10:20 am

      “James Earl Jones” loool

  19. Samuel McIntosh on January 28, 2015 at 11:23 am

    Preaching is a hard job, especially when one is not call to preach but is found preaching every time. But if anyone takes this great advise, he or she will do well when speaking God’s word to God’s sheep. Thanks again!

  20. Kelli Espiritu on January 25, 2015 at 8:40 pm

    Once again ya “nailed it.” What I appreciate most is how you broke everything down. I’m drawn to your blog and podcasts because you avoid the 7 things you listed. I’m also blessed by your past post when you challenged us to uncover the “What’s in it for me?” angle. Forgive me for not commenting more often. I’m challenging myself to engage and interact rather than being a freeloader. Haha. Blessings to you and keep being you. Our King is using you mightily.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 26, 2015 at 6:41 pm

      Kelli…great to hear from you again. Thanks for the encouragement…the specific application points. Really meaningful. We’re all in this together, aren’t we?

  21. Chuck on January 24, 2015 at 11:33 am

    Hi Carey, love your posts. Instead of having people critique my message after I give it I have had a team over years meet with me on Thursday before I give it and critique and ask questions. It’s been a good discipline and helpful when they ask me, what does that joke have anything to do with your topic? I always answer, “nothing I wanted a laugh.” They will say drop it and 50% of time I do. Thanks for the articles. Very insightful.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 24, 2015 at 1:19 pm

      Thanks Chuck…that’s an awesome discipline and so much better than the post morten. Love this on many levels…humility in what you’re doing is HUGE!

  22. […] 7 Easy Ways to Ruin an Otherwise Great Sermon, Message or Talk (And How to Fix It), by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  23. Weekend Links | Worship Links on January 23, 2015 at 6:57 pm

    […] Carey Nieuwhof shares seven ways to destroy a sermon: […]

  24. Jeff on January 23, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    1# Believe the sanctuary or fellowship hall or classroom is a formal place and not an upper room or dining room where friends meet. 2# Run from your pain and don’t embrace it. #3 Think to be a giver is a gift and to be a receiver is not. (They’re in the position to give you a reason to have joy in ministry) #4 Don’t get the audience involved.

    • Jeff on January 23, 2015 at 2:11 pm

      Be willing to be a fool for God. That’s probably my favorite one.

  25. wdavidrice on January 23, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Carey! This is very helpful. As a newer preacher/teacher in my first Lead Pastor role, I know that sometimes I simply feel too busy with everything else going on in life to really put the hours in to become better at my craft. I can often coast through on talent, but I probably have more arrogance within me than talent most days. Whenever I say yes to more meetings, more emails, more tasks, etc. it means I’m saying no to my sermon prep. Thanks for reminding me that this work is incredibly valuable and that it takes time to hone it. I’m looking forward to getting better…gotta go practice 😉

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 23, 2015 at 2:14 pm

      Love your self-awareness at such an early stage of leadership. Thanks for your honesty! It’s awesome. 🙂

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