The Secret Sauce of Speaking | Tension

I’m currently blogging about what I’ve learned about teaching over the last few years.  My last post was all about engaging the internal conversation of your audience.  Today, I want to share a little more about tension.  You should probably know that these ideas are stolen from my senior teaching pastor, Jeff Manion.

As we teach, it’s crucially important that we answer the question every listener is asking, “Why should I listen to you” by creating tension in our introductions.  But, that initial burst of tension only buys us 5-7 minutes of attention.  In other words, your introduction, even an amazing introduction will only buy you, at the max, 7 minutes until your audience will start asking, “Why should I continue listening to you?”  If we fail to answer this question, our audience will begin daydreaming and in the case of middle schoolers, probably throwing something..  Opportunity lost.

Movies utilize tension in the way I’m describing.  There is an initial burst of tension and then tension is reintroduced every few minutes.  For example, Star Wars…

  • Initial Tension: Darth Vader captures Princess Leia
  • New Tension:  Luke can’t go to the Toshe Station (what a whiner!)
  • New Tension:  Luke gets attacked by the Sand People
  • New Tension:  Luke’s struggles with whether to become a Jedi
  • New Tension:  Stormtroopers attack Luke’s family
  • New Tension:  Han shoots first…
  • New Tension:  You get the idea.

A great movie reintroduces tension every few minutes, and while preaching or teaching is considerably different than Star Wars, the same principle applies.  If you want to capture and keep your audience’s attention, you must reintroduce tension every few minutes.  So, how do we do it?

One of the easiest ways to do this is through transitions.  There is a way to use transitions in a way that reengages the minds of the audience and points back to your central question. If you’re unfamiliar with this idea, it might sound like crazy talk.  Let me explain.  I’ll use the example of John 11:1-7, and the transition between Jesus’ apparent lack of concern for Lazarus and then his emotional response and the resurrection of his friend.

First, a typical transition that does nothing to help reintroduce tension and reengage the mind of the audience:

“Jesus gets word that His close friend is desperately sick.  Surprisingly,he waits for two days. But then Jesus goes to his friend.  Let’s read what happens.”


Here’s an example of a tension loaded transition using the tool of a question:

I just have to ask a question here.  Is this how Jesus responds to his friend when they are desperate?  Is this how Jesus will respond to me when I’m desperate?  What’s going on here?

The imagination of the listener is drawn into the drama of the story and they put themselves in the story.  The purpose of a question transition is to ask a real or imaginary question that the audience is or could be asking.  When you use this technique, tension is reintroduced to the communication.


Here’s an example of a transition statement that raises an objection:

As we read this story, I know that some of you are thinking, “This is exactly why I walked away from the church.  This story about Jesus confirms my experience with God.  When I needed Him, He was silent.  When things fell apart in my life, He went missing.”

The idea behind an objection transition is to raise a real or imaginary objection that members of the audience are or could be asking.  Even if the listener hasn’t personally experienced the objection, their mind will be reengaged in addressing the objection.  And, if you address a real objection that your audience is actually asking, the impact is tremendous.


A reverse is when you draw a contrast between what is expected and what actually happens.  Think football.  Here’s an example of a reverse from John 11:

Lazarus’s sisters send word that Lazarus is dangerously sick.  Everything we’ve read about Jesus to this point would lead us to believe that he’ll drop everything and run to save Lazarus but, if you’re familiar with the story, you know that’s not what happens.  What in the world is happening here?

A reverse can be effective when you’re sure the audience is expecting something other than where the text or a story you are telling is going.  You’ve nailed it if the internal conversation of the audience says, “Wait, what?!?”


These examples may sound too simple or perhaps even silly but I am telling you they work.  And, think of what’s at stake here.  So many sermons and teachings start out strong with a good introduction, plenty of tension and then gradually run out of steam as tension evaporates and the audience engagement wanes.  One way or another, if you’re going to teach effectively you must reintroduce tension and one easy and effective way to do this is through transitions.

There is another way that communications run out of steam and that is when the audience gets confused.  In my next post, I’ll share some ideas on teaching with clarity.



Image credited to Kham Tran via Flickr

The Secret Sauce of Speaking

When it comes to student ministry, my favorite role is communicating.  I find so much joy and fulfillment in brainstorming series, writing content, speaking, and developing the other teachers on our student ministry team.

Over time, I’ve learned quite a bit about teaching–from trial and error, listening, mentors and from attempting to formalize my method so that I can help others improve.  Over the next couple of weeks I want to share some of the secret sauce.  Here’s lesson number one…

One of the most important skills a speaker can develop is the ability to view the communication as a conversation.  In other words, this is more than a presentation, sermon or lesson.  This is a relational connection.  There is so much more going on than content exchange.  Think about it:  Whenever you listen to a sermon or presentation (and you’re actually listening) there is a conversation running in your head.  You say things like:

  • “I’m not sure I agree with that.”
  • “Wow.  I know exactly what she’s talking about.”
  • “I’m not sure I like this person.”
  • “How did he know exactly what is going on in my life?”
  • “Why is he still talking?!?!”

A master communicator knows how to tap into this conversation and even guide it.

The internal conversation begins as soon as you step on the stage or in front of the class.  The first questions everyone asks are:

  • “Do I trust this person?”
  • “Why should I keep listening?”

How do we tap into the internal conversation and guide it?  Give your audience the answers to these questions as they are asking them.


When I’m sitting in a coffee shop, writing an introduction for a teaching or presentation, I’m asking myself,  “How can I connect with my audience so that they feel like they know me and trust me.”  This usually involves a personal story that connects with the overall topic and demonstrates some vulnerability and understanding.  In a few days, I will be teaching on conflict in friendships.  My introduction includes a personal story about a friendship from college that meant the world to me, but I accidentally wrecked it. The story relates to the topic and builds trust with my audience because I am vulnerable, real, and demonstrate an actual working knowledge about the topic.   My story builds trust.


Now, about the second question:  It takes energy to focus.  It takes discipline to engage with a communication on a heart level.  And we all checkout when we feel like the teacher or presenter is talking about something that doesn’t actually matter or doesn’t relate to our lives.  As a teacher, it is easy to blame the audience for not paying attention but here’s the thing:  It isn’t the job of the audience to pay attention.  It’s the job of the communicator to capture their minds.

So, the task for a communicator is to convince the audience that they NEED to stay engaged.  As my friends at Orange say, “you have to create tension.”  You’ve created tension when your audience’s internal conversation says:

  • “I need to know this.”
  • “He’s right, I don’t understand this issue.”
  • “This topic could change XYZ in my life.”

A great introduction creates tension.  It answers the question everyone in the room is asking, “Why should I keep listening?”  In my teaching about friendships, I will say, “I’m not the only one who has wrecked a friendship am I?  We all have someone in our lives who was a close friend.  Is there a way we can navigate conflict in our relationships without blowing up the friendship?  This is what we’re going to talk about tonight…”

A great introduction answers two questions everyone is asking, “Do I trust this person” and “Why should I keep listening.”  Think about it:  Within the first few minutes, every great movie convinces you to root for the protagonist and care about the tension.

  • You fall in love with Nemo and care about whether or not he will find his dad.
  • You think Matt Damon is hilarious and really don’t want him to die alone on Mars.
  • You root for Forrest and want him to win Jenny’s heart.

Every great movie answers these two questions and so should every presentation or teaching.  Just remember two words:  trust and tension.

But here’s the thing, from what I’ve learned, your injection of tension only lasts for 5-7 minutes.  Then, the audience’s mind start wandering again.  Then what do you do?  I’ll share some ideas in my next post.



image credited to wisepig via Flickr