By Eddie Pipkin

I was recently leading a small group spiritual study and referenced a TED Talk, at which point I realized that none of the folks at the table with me had any idea what a Ted Talk was.  This was a “Say What?” moment for me, because I thought everybody on the planet knew what a TED Talk was by now.  TED is a non-profit created way back in the 1980s to explore “ideas worth sharing” about technology, entertainment, and design (that’s the T, E, and D) and leading to conferences around the world at which short talks are given by thinkers from a variety of fields.  TED now features an online repository of thousands of videos featuring talks from its conferences.  It’s a great resource for thoughtful ministry leaders, including a section dedicated to “religion.” You can also check out these “12 Inspiring TED Talks on Religion, Faith, and Humanity” – a great resource for discussion with a small group or just to expand your own thinking.

TED Talks are known for their very specific format (first and foremost of which is that they are limited to 18 minutes), and the ones that have gone viral have featured passionate, entertaining speakers, who succinctly communicate mind-blowing ideas.  Among those who speak to crowds for a living – here’s looking at you pastors, youth directors, and inspirational gurus – the popular TED Talk format has inspired many to ask, “What if sermons were more like TED Talks?”

Of course, the premise behind that question is that there are a lot of boring, uninspiring lectures out there posing as sermons.  It is one of the tried-and-true assumptions for those struggling to understand (and respond to) the exodus of people from traditional worship services: If only our sermons were peppier!  If only they showcased more razzle dazzle!  Then more butts would be in the pews.  In terms of people choosing to spend their time somewhere besides church on a Sunday morning, though, the issues are far more complex than the entertainment quality and inspirational quotient of the pastor/speaker.  Still, it is true that the popularity of a forum like TED offers some clues as to effective ways to share ideas, communicate vision, inspire participation, and encourage spiritual engagement and growth.

In an article from Seedbed, titled “5 Reasons TED Talks Go Viral and Your Sermons Don’t,” Tom Fuerst links an analysis of the common factors in the most popular TED Talks with strategies that could be applied when preaching.  Here are the 5 things:

  • Don’t be anchored to a script. Nobody reads a TED Talk from a from behind a podium.  In all fairness, presenters at TED conferences generally have weeks to rehearse what they are going to say, and you probably don’t, but preparation and familiarity with your presentation always pays off.  (I stress preparation, because your presentation will always, always, always be more engaging and confident if you fully write it out.  You don’t have to stick to it word for word by any means, but the mental connections established by fully fleshing it out always pay off.  If you can do a dry run rehearsal, do it.  Show up an hour early on Sunday morning and test it out in the actual space.  This, too, pays dividends.
  • How you say what you say matters. A lot.  Let your passion show.  Be energetic.  Mix up your cadence.  If your entire sermon is at the same pace, you are missing opportunities to cue your audience on the relative importance of different parts.  Says Fuerst:

Your inflection and passion ought to embody the passage from which you’re preaching, and the God of which you speak.

  • You’ve got 7 seconds to gain an audience’s attention. Don’t gloss over this public speaking truism.  Really think about it.  What it’s saying is not “start off with a funny anecdote or joke” – which, let’s be frank, is the go-to universal strategy for preachers.  What it’s saying is that maybe you need to state your most dramatic, life-changing, revelatory premise up front!  We, too often, develop the long introduction, slowly working our way to the big reveal, but what if we were clear at the very beginning about why this morning’s message matters for the listeners?
  • Use hand gestures. Science indicates they hold people’s attention in ways that a static presentation does not.

The quality of the sermon’s presentation is often connected to how the audience relates to the sermon. The audience creates the sermon as much as the pastor does. The pastor may speak the words and embody some of the ideas, but the audience responds –  “amens,” furrowed brows, yawns, laughter, head nodding, and, yes, even sleeping is a response. Your audience not only wants you to embody the sermon, they want the opportunity to embody a positive response to it.

  • Smile.  Everybody involved in leading worship, leading team meetings, or leading a congregation by imparting biblical wisdom, should put their face muscles to work in service to the cause.  It’s easy and effective (and makes us feel good while we do it).  Fuertes shares this story:

I recently had a conversation with an unchurched friend who complained because the Christians he knows all seem grumpy and angry. Clearly this is not the truth. But were this friend to go to church and see a smiling pastor – who was genuinely happy – he might have reason to see the joy so many Christians have come to know.

If you just worked on implementing one of those strategies in each of the next five weeks (or taking a closer look at how you’re doing with each of those strategies, even if you think you are already practicing them), it would be a worthwhile exercise.

But Chris Green, in an article at titled, “Should We Preach Like a TED Talk?,” has some additional things to think about.  He frames his TED Talk lessons as a discussion that intersects with the work of Carmine Gallo, identifying strategies that presenters and preachers should adopt, some of which are familiar and some of which Green takes issue with:

  • Unleash the master within. Don’t be afraid to preach out of your own passions (see the importance of a passionate presentation above): You have topics and issues that you care about.  Harness those obsessions.  You have areas of expertise.  Share them.  (Just don’t be obnoxiously repetitive about it: We get it you think Star Wars is awesome – don’t overdo it.)
  • Use humor.   In the right places.  And never, never, ever use it as duct tape to hold together a creaky premise or cover over bad preparation.  And never use it at the expense of other people and their dignity.  Humor works best when it is self-deprecating.
  • Refine your skill as a storyteller. People love stories.  Think of Jesus in the Gospels.  We think and learn in stories.  Concepts are best framed within the context of stories.  With characters and settings and interesting details and even suspense.
  • Create a multisensory experience. This is not limited to fancy technology.  You are not dependent on surround sound, fog machines, or massive video projectors to create a multisensory presentation.  What it means – literally – is to engage multiple senses.  This can be low tech.  These can even be done exclusively with words, if you choose very descriptive words that help people use their imaginations to connect to their senses.
  • Create jaw dropping moments. Chris Green struggles with this one.  He argues that the sacred calling of preaching should not be gimmick-driven (and he’s right) – you should not spend every sermon setting up for some “big reveal” or grand surprise.  But drawing from my background as a creative writing instructor, and thinking back to the value of storytelling, there should be a sense of dramatic action whenever you speak – there should be a plot, which features building tension, and ultimately, a climax and resolution.  That’s the nature of any compelling story.
  • Stick to the 18-minute rule. Some churches have embraced a counter-strategy to this approach; they have created space for a solid 45-minute teaching sermon, and if this strategy is working for you in your setting, great!  For many of us, struggling to refine our speaking skills and working to keep worship service times balanced, the 18-minue rule is a solid model for holding us accountable to drill down into what matters.
  • Stay in your lane. By this, they mean be authentic.  No posing.  No pretending to be smarter than you are, holier than you are, cooler than you are, anything other than who God made you to be.  Embrace your youniqueness.  Lean into it, and people will be interested to hear what YOU have to say.

Green also reminds us that preaching is inherently different from teaching a class, giving a team talk, entertaining a room, or leading a pep rally.  It is a sacred calling, and its core is speaking holy truth with integrity and leaving the results to God:

Sometimes we might sound like we’re giving a TED talk. At its most benign, any of these . . . elements on Gallo’s list might simply be common sense. Gallo may be giving us the contemporary marks of good style, just as previous generations quoted Latin. But cultural values are never sinless and they need to be corrected in the light of the gospel. Preach persuasive, engaging sermons, but never confuse style with substance, never lose sight of the logic of the gospel, and never lose trust in the Word to do its work.

Bravo.  Fidelity to the call.  A commitment to getting stronger at our craft.  A dedication to thoughtfully considering our audience and its needs.  All of these factors work together, making life more interesting for both those who do the proclaiming and those who are the recipients of that which is proclaimed.