As a preacher you want to make your ideas come alive. When you labor preparing a message and perfectly craft your points you’re not thinking, I’m sure this will be altogether unremarkable, but I’ll give it a try. No, you’re thinking, How can I make them see this and feel it and be changed by it?
We all want this because what good is it if you make a great point, but no one feels it? If no one does anything with it? An effective illustration is the secret sauce that makes your listeners grab onto your ideas on an emotional level. I wrote about the importance of connecting with your listener’s emotionally in this article. A good illustration will reach out and grab your listeners and pull them into your content. It will make them care.
But how do you use illustrations? There are plenty of resources on where to find illustrations, but I want to talk about how to use them. You can have a killer illustration that you misuse and have it fall flat. You can give a great illustration at the wrong time and have it lose its punch. You can have an amazing story that you tell poorly, or an interesting analogy that doesn’t quite fit, or a metaphor that you fail to connect to your point.
I’ve made all of these mistakes. I’m sure you have too. Given the complexity and importance of using illustrations, I want to offer some guidance…
Here are 4 must do’s of using illustrations:
1. Think through the timing and placement. Every time you make a point in a message you explain it, teach it, apply it, and illustrate it. Every point is different and everyone has a different way of communicating an idea, but these four elements basically encompass everything you do with a point. So how do you sequence them? The key is to find what works for you and for your listeners. Maybe you explain the point in a teaching format, then once you have laid the foundation you move to illustrating how it works. At the end you flow naturally into application. Or maybe you present the idea without much explanation, but you jump into a story that is going to connect to the idea once you explain it. The point is there is more than one way to do it, but you need to be intentional about the process for each point.
Your illustrations can work in a lot of areas, but you should think through and plan for the best placement. How do you know what’s best? Practice out loud a few times. Make your point, explain it, teach it, apply it, and illustrate it. Each time you practice change up the order see what flows the most naturally. I plan out in advance where illustrations will go, and sometimes I change it up in the moment. But the process of thinking it through ahead of time allows me to massage it in the moment and still know exactly how it fits.
2. Jump right into it. Howard Hendricks use to poke at preachers who would give an introduction to their illustrations. Maybe you’ve heard preachers do this: “And now I’m going to illustrate this point, it’s going to be very illustrative, it will serve as an illustration for you to remember.”
If you give this wordy, unnecessary introduction, then your illustration is probably dead before you even get started.
Just say it. Just tell the story. Just give the example. Just give the illustration. There is no need to introduce it. Your listener’s brains are working much faster than your mouth is moving. They will connect the dots if the illustration is effective and makes sense. It is much more interesting to move right into a story, example, metaphor or analogy than to spend precious time setting it up.
3. Be sure it reasonably connects to your point. If you have to force how it connects to your point, don’t use it. It’s like telling a joke, and having to explain the punchline. The joke is no longer funny. It never was. If you have to map out how the illustrations connects at every level, it has already lost its potency. The illustration is supposed to give your ideas clarity so it defeats the purpose if it’s confusing and leaves your listeners scratching their heads trying to connect the dots.
If you want to be sure it connects, test it out ahead of time. Run it by your preaching team and get feedback.
4. Make it interesting. There are few things worse than a boring illustration. Part of the reason you use an illustration is to gain back the attention of your listeners. If the illustration is uninteresting you miss an opportunity to bring everyone back to focusing on your message. Avoid giving canned illustrations you find in books and look for real-life stories, examples, and events. Personal stories almost always deliver, but vary your approach and keep them fresh.
What else? What are some other illustration must do’s?