The Importance of Building Audience Tension

If your audience finds your message irrelevant or struggles to see the relevance, they’ll likely tune it out. To avoid this, we need to make sure we’ve taken time to create audience hunger before we present truths and solutions. We want our listeners so anxious for whatever we have to say, they’re totally engaged with our every line. Otherwise, our words, no matter how eloquent or pithy, will land on dulled ears.

Here are some ways speakers can build audience-captivating tension into their presentations.

1. Begin with a story rather than thesis paragraph or personal introduction.

We’ve all heard the advice, “Say what you want to say, say it, then say what you said.” In other words, begin with a concise outline or road map for your paper or talk.

There are a few problems with this method. First, it’s similar to giving away a punch-line before developing a joke. Second, it often fails to develop audience trust, and we cannot reach an untrusting heart. Third, it doesn’t captivate.

Stories are powerful connection tools. Science has shown they create what’s called “brain coupling” between the audience and speaker. In other words, the listener grows deeply “in sync” with the presenter and presentation. Two areas in their brain light up: The language processing centers and their sensory cortex. In other words, it’s as if they aren’t just listening but are experiencing the expressed events themselves.

Stories, when told with transparency and authenticity, are also some of the best ways to build audience trust. Our listeners want to know we ourselves have struggled in an area before they’ll listen to our solutions. This impresses them, and unites us to them, much more effectively than all our achievements and credentials.

2. Begin with a story that shows what the issue you’re addressing costs.

When I speak, I like to begin by sharing times when I’ve lived contrary to whatever truth I want to proclaim. For example, when I talk about choosing faith over fear, I start with a testimony of when I felt consumed with fear and how this negatively impacted my time, relationships, and calling.

Often, I spend the first quarter or third of my talk revealing this. As I do, my audience begins to see themselves in my struggle. They grapple with their doubts and anxieties, considering ways its hindered and enslaved them. I often refer to this as backdoor teaching. Most of us don’t like to feel taught. Our pride can easily become defensive, causing us to discount or downplay whatever we’re hearing. In short, we begin to pull back, when we want our audience to lean in.

The opposite occurs when we listen to stories, however. Stories lower our defenses and prick our hearts in ways facts and credentials never can.

3. Hint at your topic within the first couple of minutes.

I use the word hint intentionally. Many of us have been instructed to begin with a clear statement defining the point of our presentation: “Today I’d like to talk about ways we can choose faith over fear.”

And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that method, and in some ways, it’s effective, especially in terms of avoiding what Andy Stanley refers to as listener “whiplash,” it doesn’t have the captivating power a more subtle yet equally clear beginning can.

Consider this opening instead:

I wish I more consistently lived in faith, grounded in who God is and what He’s promised. Fear has robbed me of so much! When I was a young mom, ….”

4. Go deep—to the “felt need” level.

The more I prayerfully study our fallen condition, the more I’m convinced that nearly all, if not all, of our struggles arise when we attempt to meet our God-given needs in our own ways and wisdom. Consider our call to surrender. The converse of surrender is fighting for control, something we all battle. There are many reasons why. We may worry, if we relinquish our grasp, we won’t get that promotion, we’ll lose that relationship, or our ministries will fail. Going deeper, one could say we fear insignificance, rejection, or losing our life’s purpose.

Can you see the felt needs involved? Our God-given need for significance, purpose, belonging, and acceptance?

Reaching this level also helps give concrete and specific examples a broader, more universal appeal. Our listeners may not have a difficult time moving. In fact, they might enjoy periodic changes in scenery. But they probably understand what it feels like to lose their sense of belonging or have their security shaken.

When we take time to build audience tension by showing them, through story, what living contrary to our message costs, they’ll be much more apt to listen when we begin to share steps to transformation.

Let’s talk about this! What are some ways you build tension into your talks? What about as a listener? What presentations have captivated you, and why do you think this was so?

To learn more contact her through her website to find out more about her ministry and speaking and to book her for your next women’s or writers’ group event. And make sure to visit her Faith Over Fear website page to find faith-bolstering resources, because you cannot be all God created you to be if you’re enslaved to fear. 

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