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8 Tips for Keeping Audience Attention

This post is part of the series on Preaching for Youth. Teenagers are notorious for their short attention span. Yet I have seen them listen to speakers for 45 minutes and even more, fully interested and captivated. The reason? These preachers managed to keep their attention. So what’s their secret?

There are some things you can do in advance, when preparing your sermon, to ensure you’ll keep your audience hooked. I’ll discuss these in today’s post. But there are also things you can do while giving your sermon to make sure you keep the attention or to get it back when you’ve lost it. We’ll talk about those next time.

If you want to prepare a sermon that will keep your audience’s attention, here are 8 things you can do:

1. Make it personal

When your audience feels like they know you, they will be more inclined to listen to what you have to say. So when preparing your talk, don’t forget to include some personal stories and experiences, maybe even some photos or videos. You can read more about the importance of making it personal in another post I wrote.

2. Make it interesting

A great way to connect with your audience is to talk about something that interests them. Teens are no different. If you can somehow link your message to issues they’re dealing with, to stuff they’re seeing every day, or to things they know and care about, it will go a long way in keeping their attention. You can for instance use emotions (feeling lonely, being insecure), media (movies, TV shows, music), known problems (peer pressure, being bullied) or hobbies and interests (gadgets, celebrities, sports). Don’t ‘force’ the connection between your message and any of these interests; make it a natural one.

3. Tell stories

People love stories. It’s like our brain is wired for stories! When someone starts to tell us a story, no matter how clumsily, we always want to know how it ends. Use this to grab attention and incorporate a few stories into your sermon. And if you’re a great storyteller, why not try to make your whole sermon narrative-style?

4. Make them do something

Another way to engage your audience during your sermon is by making them do something. It can be something simple like taking polls (either in writing or by raising hands) or asking them to introduce themselves to someone they don’t know. You can also think about more elaborate actions, like lighting a candle, writing a prayer, discussing a question with someone else, etc. The most important thing here is that you prepare this well and think it through. Make sure no one will feel left out, that your instructions are clear, that you don’t ask anyone to do something they don’t feel comfortable with, etc.

5. Challenge them, but not too much

There are two extremes here that you need to avoid. If your sermon is too difficult, you will lose your audience’s attention because they’ll feel it’s not for them. But if you make it too easy, if you only tell stuff your students already know, they’ll get bored as well. The trick is to challenge them to think, to engage their minds, but at a level they can manage. The best way to do this is to really analyze your audience beforehand. What do they know about the topic, what is their attitude, what is their educational level, what is their cultural and religious background (for instance: did the majority grow up in church or not)?

6. Use more senses

People love watching a screen; it’s like a magnet. But it’s also hard for our brains to process spoken words and written words at the same time. But pictures are very effective, so try to use appropriate pictures (or video, moving images) up on the screen when you’re talking. If there’s anyway you can incorporate something to touch or to smell, that would be great as well. Also, don’t underestimate the effect of music; it can truly touch people. I’ve used music in my sermon several times and often with good results, at least attention-wise.

7. Start great

While it’s not a good idea to use your best ‘material’ in the first five minutes, a good introduction of your sermon is essential to keeping your audience’s attention. They will start out listening to you, so the trick is to keep them listening. People feel sometimes that they should start with a joke or something funny, but I don’t think that necessarily works. What does work is to start with something that makes your audience somehow emotionally involved. They have to start caring about you, about your topic, about what you are going to say. For me, that means I often start with something personal or a story. I’ll get deeper into this in another post.

8. End great

Even the best preachers can lose their audience in the end, because they don’t know how to end a sermon well. They either end abruptly, start summarizing or repeating their message, or they end with some well-intended clichés. When you’re writing your sermon, think about how you want to end it. Really, spend some time on this until you come up with a great way to end your sermon. Do you want your students to do something, to think about something, to realize something? What do you want to achieve and what do you need to end with to get there?  

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Rachel Blom has been involved in youth ministry in different roles since 1999, both as a volunteer as on staff. She simply loves teens and students and can't imagine her life without them. In youth ministry, preaching and leadership are her two big passions. Her focus right now is providing daily practical training through www.YouthLeadersAcademy.com to help other youth leaders grow and serve better in youth ministry. She resides near Munich in the south of Germany with her husband and son. You can visit Rachel at www.YouthLeadersAcademy.com