How To Know What Your Audience Is Thinking BEFORE You Communicate

Ever wonder what your audience is thinking as you give your sermon, talk or speech?

Why not find out ahead of time?

The problem with most communicators is that they only get feedback after they communicate.  Whether it’s a polite “that was nice” at the door, or an email you get from someone who didn’t agree, or a team debrief that after the event, it’s great to get feedback, but the ship has already sailed. You’ll never get that talk, message or series back again.

I used to think this was inevitable, but it’s not.

Over the last 8 years, I’ve been experimenting with testing the content of my sermon series, messages, book titles and even these blog posts before I write them.

It’s been tremendously helpful.

What surprises me is how WRONG I can be about what people are actually struggling with.

Even if you rehearse your message, you’re not really getting the full value of feedback before you deliver.

Here are 3 ways you can get feedback to any communication piece you’re working on before you deliver it.

1. Bounce it off your team

Too many speakers work in isolation.

Solitude is a gift. But isolation is almost always a tool of the enemy.

When I write in isolation, I never do as well as when I have a team to bounce ideas off. And the truth is, whether you have a large staff or no staff, anyone can create a team to help them brainstorm ideas and direction.

Let me run you through a real-life example of how this works and the impact it can have.

A few months ago, I had dinner with a group of preachers who said they had completed a series they called “Scared to Death.” I loved the title so much I wrote it down and couldn’t wait to create a series around that title. After all, fear is a major issue and the scripture addresses it in many ways.

When I got home, I ran series idea by our service programming team at Connexus Church—a team of 5 or 6 people who help us design our weekend services. That team is all church staff, but again, you don’t need a staff to do this. Just gather a few creative types together and start discussing your ideas.

As I bounced the concept off the team, they loved the premise but quickly began to wonder aloud whether it was too dramatic a title. Maybe people weren’t actually scared to death.

Good point, I thought.

I listened, and as we fleshed it out, we wondered if ‘worry’ would be a better angle.

So we came up with the idea to call the series “Worry [Less]: How to Find Freedom From Your Fears.”

The idea was already better. I got excited about it, and so did the team.

It’s important you don’t walk into a meeting looking for people to validate your ideas. If you do, you’ll shut down honest discussion quickly.

Bottom line? Bouncing any idea off a team makes it better than working in isolation, no matter how gifted you are.

Make sure the best idea wins, whether or not it’s yours.

Walking out of that first creative meeting, we already had a better idea.

But you can take it further than that. Much further.

2. Poll Your Audience

I have become a huge fan of surveys. I run as many as I can without spamming people to death.

If I could figure out how to do it without fatiguing people, I would run a survey before every sermon series I write.

Services like SurveyMonkey make it super easy to design a survey you can send out to whomever you wish, asking whatever questions you want.

We emailed 1200 people who attend our church and asked them to take this survey about worry.

I learned so much it completely changed the angle of the series.

In the survey, I floated four terms that describe people’s emotional reactions to adversity: fear, worry, stress and anxiety.

Their responses showed that of all four words, fear least described how they felt most days. Stressed best described it, followed by anxiety.  Worry was #3.

See the difference? I thought scared was the way to angle this series. Our team thought worry was. The survey told us we would have missed the boat.

People didn’t feel afraid or worried as much as they feel stressed or anxious.

I also asked people how they thought their friends and neighbors felt and what word they would feel most comfortable using when inviting a friend to come with them for the series. The number one response? Again, stressed.

Obviously, the scripture talks a lot about fear and also addresses worry and anxiety. Stress is a more modern description of how people feel. The biblical content behind the series isn’t going to change, but the angle I take—the way I approach the subject—will change drastically.

Here’s how the series title and angle evolved through the process.

Version 1 (Me on my own): Scared to Death: Finding Freedom From Your Fear.

Version 2 (After our team meeting):  Worry [Less]: Finding Freedom from Fear and Anxiety.

Version 3 (After the survey):  Stress [Less]: Finding Freedom From Worry and Anxiety. 

I’m still preaching on Jesus’ teachings on worry in Matthew 6 and other key biblical texts, but my angle will hopefully be much closer to what people are actually struggling with.

Guess what else I learned?

I found out what people actually get stressed about. It’s completely different than what I struggle with or what I would have guessed.

I would have thought people were worried about the state of the world or the economy. Insert buzzer here. WRONG.

According to almost 300 people who took the survey, here are their top 5 stressors:

  1. Letting other people down
  2. Kids
  3. Money
  4. Personal failure
  5. What other people think of me.

I would never have guessed #1.

Imagine leading off the series with “So the headlines have got you worried. You’re nervous about ending up all alone in life, and you’re worried about your relationship with God….” I would have totally misread the real struggles people have. Honestly, I could have lost people in the first 5 minutes.

Again, the biblical content doesn’t change (it’s incredibly applicable to all stress, worry, anxiety, and fear),  but the application should.

To misread your audience that badly is a little like hiring a painter to come in and paint your kitchen, only to have the painter paint your family room instead. The application happened…it just happened incorrectly.

Guess how I picked the titles for my last book and for The High Impact Leader course? I surveyed you. You told me what resonated, and what didn’t.

I also keep a database of the pain points of over 1200 leaders I polled over the last few years to see what they struggle with. When I’m stuck for a blog idea, I dive into that database.

We’re also surveying all registrants for the Rethink Leadership event in Atlanta and for the first Canadian Church Leader’s Conference—surveying attendees so we can custom tailor the content to tackle the problems they’re actually trying to solve. (There are only a few seats left for both events…so if you want to come, hurry!)

The point. Too many speakers waste their time answering questions no one is asking. Don’t be one of them.

3. Run a focus group

In addition to creating a team that regularly reviews your ideas and running a survey, a third great option is to run a focus group. Often 6-10 people is plenty to have a great focus group.

We’ll do this several times a year at Connexus. When we do it well, we bring in a mixture of churched and unchurched people for a two hour session.

I’ll pitch a series topic or idea for a few minutes, and then essentially just throw it open and let people react. The point is (again) not to convince them your idea is a good one, but to listen to how the react to it.

Another approach is to open conversation around a subject (say sin, or grace, or Christmas) and just ask for people’s thoughts and feelings.

Make sure you have someone taking notes and capturing ideas and reactions.

What people tell you is pure gold. You may not agree with what they say, but you will understand them.

Communicators who understand their audience do a far better job of reaching them.

Bonus Ideas?

Two bonus ideas:

  1. Write your message weeks ahead. I do this, and you not only become far more comfortable with your content…you might come up with better angles in the meantime. I outline my exact process and even a strategy for how to give a talk without using notes in this five-part free blog series that you can read here.
  2. Rehearse your message in front of a small audience. I haven’t done this yet, but I see more and more communicators doing this. It won’t give you the same kind of input you would get in from a team in the early stages of talk design or from a survey or focus group, but it can still help you work the bugs out.

Finally, if you want to take a professional dive into becoming a much better communicator, I’ve been tremendously helped by Jeff Henderson’s Preaching Rocket over the years.  You can check it out here and even get a free 7 day trial (affiliate link).

Well, those are some tips to help you.

What’s helping you? Scroll down and leave a comment.

How To Know What Your Audience Is Thinking BEFORE You Communicate


  1. Sarah Kosak Calvert on March 30, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    How about – do the demographic research! So much good stuff out there, and it talks about the people that surround your church – your next visitor!

  2. Scott Savage on February 27, 2017 at 10:18 pm

    Carey – this is so good. I rehearse my sermon before a small group each week, but hadn’t thought about the other parts you mentioned. I love how you shared the evolution of one series from good to great using feedback. I’m sharing this post with our team. PS – if you ever need perspective from a pastor who has been using a focus group (pre-Sunday – I preach the whole message to them), I’d be willing to share. Thanks again for investing in all of us and helping us lead like never before!

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