Unless the rock you’re living under still has dial-up Internet, you’ve probably seen a TED Talk. These short videos have been shared on social media, embedded into websites and viewed over a billion times. TED (Technology, Education and Design) has become the benchmark by which all other presentations are measured.
You realize your sermon is a presentation, right?
TED Talks have impacted the way people receive information in the 21st Century. While you’re carefully crafting your sermons through the week, your audience is watching TED Talks with rapt attention. They don’t even check their watches or wonder if they’ll still have time to make it to the buffet.
Carmine Gallo, an accomplished communicator and author of such books as The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs and the new book, The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On and Others Don’t, has distilled the secrets of the best TED Talks in his book Talk Like TED. With thorough examination of research data, scientific studies and examples from the talks themselves, Gallo offers plenty of encouragement for developing killer presentations and talking like TED.
But Can You Preach Like TED?
We were taught in Homiletics classes in college that preaching is a wholly unique form of communication. If that wasn’t enough, our speech professors who hammered at us for writing sermons instead of speeches forced us to see the distinctions. That being said, the practices of TED can teach us a lot about preaching.
Gallo’s book identifies the nine components of inspiring TED presentations, divided up into three categories:
- Emotional (they touch the heart)
- Novel (they teach something new)
- Memorable (they present content in unforgettable ways)
As preachers, these categories speak to what we desire to do every Sunday. I didn’t find them surprising, but I did find them clarifying. They allowed me to see the “why” behind those sermons that do an exceptional job of connecting with my people.
What Gallo does with the book and what the research he cites proves are the very things most competent preachers already know by experience and instinct.
What Makes for a Great TED Talk . . . or Sermon?
Within each of the three categories are three individual components. Here are four that spoke most clearly to me.
People Love Stories
When you’re invited to speak at TED you will receive a stone tablet with the 10 TED Commandments. The fourth commandment is “Thou shalt tell a story.” Stories are vital to TED Talks.
Research done at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute shows that “personal stories actually cause the brains of both storyteller and listener to sync up” (page 50 of Talk Like Ted). On page 51, Gallo writes, “Researchers have discovered that our brains are more active when we hear stories.”
This is something you already knew, isn’t it? If not from your own preaching, then from the example of Jesus himself.
For me, Talk Like Ted gave me some new ways to think about types of stories and how to use them. Stories connect with people in amazing ways. Beyond just illustrations and humorous introduction, stories have the power to introduce new ideas and new ways of thinking. They aren’t just filler or illustrative material–there’s power in storytelling. Learn to use it well.
People want to learn something new.
In Overhearing the Gospel, Fred Craddock maintained that people already know and love the old, old story. They don’t mind hearing it again. The challenge is to find fresh ways to retell them what they already know.
Oh, and Craddock also was a huge advocate of the power of storytelling.
On page 127, Gallo quotes neuroscientist Gregory Berns, “The brain is just ‘a lazy piece of meat . . . [It] must be provided with something that it has never before processed to force it out of predictable perceptions.”
Think of Jesus answering the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Think of the apostle Paul in Acts 17 declaring, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Those teaching have become some of the most iconic in the Christian faith, and yet to the original hearers they upset their preconceived notions and turned their worlds upside down.
There’s a reason our attention span is short.
If there is ONE chapter of this book you will struggle with it is chapter 7: Stick to the 18-Minute Rule.
While on a retreat with eight other ministers, we began discussing sermon length. All of us admitted to regularly going over 30 minutes with some preaching for 45. Our retreat mentor encouraged us to think about sermon length and to begin shortening our messages. We’ve all found it a challenge, but we’re doing better. Still, 18 minutes feels like an impossible goal.
The research Gallo presents in Talk Like TED backs up the importance of the 18-minute rule. On page 185, he writes:
The longer the task or the more information that is delivered, the greater the cognitive load. Listening to a five-minute presentation produces a relatively small amount of cognitive backlog; an 18-minute presentation produces a little more, while a 60-minute presentation produces so much backlog that you risk seriously upsetting your audience unless you create a very engaging presentation with “soft breaks” — stories, videos, demonstrations, or other speakers.
But is it the chicken or the egg? Is 18 minutes the proper time because we’re wired that way or are we wired that way because more and more presentations are about 18 minutes long? Either way, it’s hard to ignore the evidence that Gallo presents.
My friends on the retreat all admitted to struggling with shorter sermons. Talk Like TED didn’t convince me that my sermons have to be 18 minutes long, but it did teach me that I need to provide “soft breaks” from time-to-time. My listeners’ brains need time to relax and recover before soldiering on through some of my sermons.
It’s not about Multimedia, it’s about Multisensory.
“Scientists have produced a mountain of evidence showing that concepts presented as pictures instead of words are more likely to be recalled. Put simply, visuals matter–a lot.”
Out of necessity, I create my Keynote presentations with a dozen or so images–some thought-provoking, some iconic, others humorous. Often I simply display the cover slide for the current sermon series. Something must be on the screens though. A blank screen is a horrible distraction (especially for men).
What I do of necessity is one of the best practices for holding an audience’s attention. Chapter 8, Paint a Mental Picture with Multisensory Experience, details the place of pictures in your sermon and the need to avoid wordy presentation slides.
On page 213 Gallo writes, “Scientists have produced a mountain of evidence showing that concepts presented as pictures instead of words are more likely to be recalled. Put simply, visuals matter–a lot.”
My brother-in-law is one of those typical American males who hasn’t read a single book since graduation (I’d apologize, Ronnie, but we both know you’re not going to read this). He attends our church and engages well with my message. I asked him what he liked about my slides. His response was, “More pictures, fewer words.”
My brother-in-law is no neuroscientist, but his response is exactly what those who study the brain call Picture Superiority Effect. “A picture will help you remember six times more information than listening to the words alone” (page 213).
If your messages aren’t multisensory who isn’t hearing you?
When I Tried to Preach Like TED
After reading Talk Like Ted I decided to put what I had learned into action. Thanks to a much-needed vacation, I had an extra week to prepare my message. It’s a good thing I did! Constructing a message around what I had learned took a lot of preparation. Honestly, I found it exhausting!
I gave more time to illustration and yet my research on the text wasn’t diminished–if anything it was more focused. I did my best to hold the sermon to 18 minutes, but ended up landing it at 23 minutes. Not too bad for me, really.
As for my multisensory element, I used eleven slides in my Keynote presentation. Only four slides had words, ranging from the series title (Wake Up!) to eleven words taken from one verse in Matthew. I chose images that conveyed the text (Joseph’s story from Matthew 1), using images from the movie The Nativity. I also chose images that related to illustrations and supporting scriptures.
The response of the crowd made all the extra work worth it. One of my elders commented, “I could tell something was different. It didn’t sound the same as your other sermons.” That comment alone told me that I need to be cautious about letting my sermons get too formulaic. It might be too easy for my hearers to tune out because the sermons all sound the same.
Talk Like TED is a Book for Preachers
I try to read a couple books on preaching every year. While Carmine Gallo may not have intended to write a book on preaching, he has certainly written a book for preachers–and all other communicators.
Talk Like TED presents a lot of new ideas and research, but there is something very familiar in it all. You may not agree with the TED philosophy will find a familiar voice in this book–and one that is sympathetic to your weekly work. You might not always preach like TED, but give yourself permission to do so every now and then. Your hearers will notice the difference.