Craft the Title and Introduction

In the following edited excerpt from his book, Touching Others with Your Words, Chuck Swindoll offers valuable tips on crafting the catchiest title and the most interest-grabbing introduction.


The title for a sermon or speech, just like for a book, can be crucial to its success. If people have a chance to see the title beforehand, it will either attract or repel them. Here are a couple of guidelines for crafting an effective title.

First, your title should convey the subject of your talk. A good title—often but not always—alludes to a problem people find difficult to overcome. The very fact that you’re speaking implies that your message will offer solutions. While we want to attract potential audiences with a good title, the content of the sermon has to deliver what was promised. Don’t play games with your audience. They resent being misled, so deliver what you promise in a title.

Second, a good title also sets the tone for the sermon. The title should, in about seven words or less, prepare the listener for what he or she is going to hear. Is the message lighthearted? Gravely serious? Do you plan to target the congregation’s conscience, or will you offer practical, encouraging instruction? Your title should reflect the mood of the sermon and anticipate the response you hope to inspire.

For example, I preached on Samson’s struggles with self-control. I planned to convey some serious warnings but chose to keep the mood from becoming too heavy. So, I titled it “Samson: A He-Man with a She-Weakness.” My use of humor in the title helped the warnings feel less threatening, which is a good approach if you don’t know your audience very well or if they are unfamiliar with you.

On another occasion, I wanted to discuss David’s sin with Bathsheba, highlighting similar points, but driven home with a decidedly more grave approach. Humor would not have set the right tone. I titled it “Autopsy of a Moral Fall.” The word, autopsy, carries the nuance of a scientific examination, which was my approach. I wanted to offer warnings without suggesting there’s no hope for those who have suffered a particularly shameful fall. God’s grace offers life after sin.


Once I have the basic idea for a sermon or speech, I begin to think about how I want to launch the introduction. Three tips come to mind to help you write great introductions.

First, determine the best angle to begin your message. Many would counsel you to outline the body of your talk and then decide how to introduce the information, but I can’t do that. With all of the information gathered from my digging swirling around in my head, it helps me to think in sequence: title, introduction, body, conclusion. I can begin writing my introduction first because I have a good idea of where I’m going, even though I may have to—and often do—go back to make adjustments.

Second, write out and memorize the first sentence of your message. Once I have a good angle established by the introduction, I go back and craft a strong opening sentence that’s short, if possible—ideally, less than fifteen words—and, most importantly, memorable.

For example, in my message, “God’s Will, My Way,” I will open with “One of the greatest battles Christians face is doing God’s will God’s way.” I will then draw some examples from common experience to validate the statement and to pull the audience in.

For the message, “Lessons Learned through Failure,” I will begin, “There are three common mistakes we make on our journey from earth to heaven.” I’ll state them next:

  • Running before we are sent
  • Retreating after we have failed
  • Resisting when we are called

Again, I’ll let that sink in for a few seconds. Hopefully, those statements will resonate so deeply the audience will nod in wistful agreement. Many will want to write it down, so it’s often helpful to repeat such statements before beginning to unpack them.

Third, write out the transition to the body of your message. Having stated the contemporary problem, I’m ready to transition the audience into the body of the message, the main points of which provide answers to difficult questions and solutions to vexing problems. In the case of exegetical expository preaching, the Bible provides the supporting facts while carefully worded theology connects them to life.

From Touching Others with Your Words by Charles R. Swindoll, copyright © 2013. Reprinted by permission of FaithWords, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 122–28.

Focus the Body of Your Message on Scripture

In the following edited excerpt from his book, Touching Others with Your Words, Chuck Swindoll explains the purpose of the body of a sermon, defines exposition, and teaches how to order your message.

A truly impactful sermon—in fact, any effective speech—begins with good research. That’s what prompted me to find a good seminary once I discovered my calling. I didn’t go to school to learn how to preach; I went to seminary to have something to say. The professors at Dallas Theological Seminary taught me sound doctrine, but they didn’t stop there. They handed me a shovel and taught me how to dig into God’s Word on my own to find answers to the problems that my congregation and I would inevitably face.

Two Important Words: Exegetical and Expository

Preaching that is “exegetical” means the message is drawn out of the biblical text. Preaching is said to be “expository” when sermons explain the meaning, purpose, and import of a given Bible passage. And, of course, for a speech to be called a “sermon,” it must create within each listener a crisis of the will that urges a specific response. The exegetical expository preacher’s sermon won’t revolve around a hot topic ripped from the headlines or a clever insight he gained through personal experience. Rather, he chooses a book of the Bible, divides it into manageable segments, and then preaches a sermon from each segment in order, from beginning to end. On any given Sunday, the passage itself provides the subject.

A preacher might also preach a series of messages around a particular subject, such as marriage or the family, a Bible personality, a specific doctrine or some prophetic theme. The preaching can be exegetical and expository if the sermons are based on a compilation of passages that speak to the topic at hand.

A Consistent Order to Follow

While I don’t have a standard outline, I do follow a reasonably consistent order. My introduction states a problem as experienced today, connects the problem to my audience, and then transitions to the Bible to find answers. I then describe the time, date, author, audience, and circumstances of the Bible passage to highlight similarities between our situation and that of the ancient audience. I highlight specific features in the Bible text that support one or more timeless principles. I call attention to other passages that provide additional clarity or insight. Before concluding, I turn timeless principles into practical, meaningful, actionable suggestions based on real-life challenges. The conclusion then challenges each individual to turn the suggestions into imperatives, depending upon his or her specific situation. (Since all of that is so crucial, I suggest you go back and read the paragraph again.)

The Body of Your Message

Most of my research can be described as very detailed observation. I have studied the biblical passage to discern the author’s original intent for the ancient audience—his purpose for writing and the problem he attempted to correct—all the while thinking about how their circumstances relate to those of my contemporary audience. So, the digging I do really pays off here.

The body of my message essentially retraces my steps in research, showing how the problem plaguing us today also afflicted the original audience. I want individuals in my audience to see their own struggles reflected in the Text and to identify with the historical individuals in a poignantly personal way. Making this connection is crucial. When your audience feels the pathos of the passage and relates to the humanity of the people involved, they will stay with you for the duration of the message.

My purpose in the body of the message is not to teach history, but to teach about life and the application of Scripture to living. If, in the process, people learn about geography, history, theology, or Greek grammar, great! But that’s not my overriding purpose for including those details. I try not to exhaust the Text; otherwise, I risk exhausting the audience. I guard against becoming too tedious. Everything I say must serve the purpose of connecting life today to the passage at hand.

Another great feature of exegetical exposition is the opportunity to teach people how to study the Bible on their own. Homiletical exposition merely communicates the fruit of your work in the study. There are times for homiletical exposition. When your audience has no access to a Bible while they’re listening, or when the audience is hostile to the Bible, or in circumstances that call for pastoral care, such as funerals, weddings, ordinations, and receptions. But when you have the opportunity to preach exegetically, do it! Don’t leave your exegesis on the pieces of paper you throw away. Incorporate your digging process into your notes. People want to know where you found your answers and how you arrived at them. Moreover, they want to know how to find their own answers in the Scriptures. Show them . . . by example . . . as you preach. Explain, explain, explain. They will love it as long as you remain enthusiastic and keep it interesting.

Helpful Guidelines

In summary, I leave you with a list of guidelines from my book, Searching the Scriptures: Find the Nourishment Your Soul Needs.

If you want to be a trustworthy expositor, there are some key principles you need to keep in mind:

    • Stay with the text (that’s focus).
    • Make certain your comments square with the Scriptures (that’s accuracy).
    • Use terms that even the uninitiated can understand (that’s clarity).
    • Remain sensitive to your audience and connect with them (that’s practicality).
    • Be real and, when necessary, unguarded and vulnerable (that’s authenticity).

Those are good checkpoints with which to grade any lesson that is taught or sermon that is preached.1

1. Charles R. Swindoll, Searching the Scriptures: Find the Nourishment Your Soul Needs (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2016), 191.

From Touching Others with Your Words by Charles R. Swindoll, copyright © 2013. Reprinted by permission of FaithWords, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 92, 102–103, 110, 128–30, 136. 

Formulate Principles

In the following edited excerpt from his book, Touching Others with Your Words, Chuck Swindoll teaches how to formulate principles that can be applied in any era by anyone.

In the process of digging, we analyzed the section of Scripture to discover its meaning. Contrary to the teaching of some, there can be only one interpretation. It doesn’t mean different things to different people. The discipline of interpretation is not subjective; if you read the passage and do not arrive at the meaning originally intended by the human author, you are wrong, plain and simple. You have misinterpreted his writing.

People often say, “Every time I read a passage, I get something new out of it,” but they aren’t describing interpretation; they are referring to application. They have discovered new principles from the passage and begin to see new ways to apply them. That’s because a section of Scripture can yield several timeless principles leading to many practical applications.

The process of digging should answer the question “What did the passage mean to the original audience?” You should be able to express the basic idea in a couple of sentences. Furthermore, the original human author wrote instructions to the original audience expecting them to apply it to their circumstances. Those specific instructions contain within them one or more timeless principles—truths that apply to all people throughout all time regardless of culture.

For example: Moses wrote to the Hebrews entering the land of Canaan, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing” (Deuteronomy 25:4). The instructions were easy for them to interpret: “While you’re using an ox to power your grain-threshing operation, leave the muzzle off its mouth so it can eat while it’s working.” Beneath that simple interpretation, however, lies a timeless principle: “Don’t deny something (or someone) any needed sustenance while it’s helping you accomplish your objectives.” That’s a rule of conduct that anyone can apply whether or not he has an ox.

Like the interpretation, you should be able to express each timeless principle in a sentence—two at most. “Application” then is the process of giving specific instructions to your contemporary audience based on the timeless principle. Paul the apostle took the interpretation of Deuteronomy 25:4 and derived a timeless principle, which he expressed as, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” He then applied this timeless principle to his day and time, instructing churches to compensate those who diligently serve their needs as pastors, elders, and teachers (1 Corinthians 9:9; 1 Timothy 5:18).

To review: Interpretation answers the question “What did the passage mean to the original audience?” The answer should be expressed in a sentence or two. From this meaning, we derive one or more timeless principles. Application then examines the circumstances surrounding the present-day audience—their needs, their challenges, their moral dilemmas—and offers specific instructions accordingly. An application is the biblical instruction [expressed in the timeless principles] modified to fit the contemporary culture.

From Touching Others with Your Words by Charles R. Swindoll, copyright © 2013. Reprinted by permission of FaithWords, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 202–205. 

Reach the Soul with Illustrations

In the following edited excerpt from his book, Touching Others with Your Words, Chuck Swindoll explains the reasons he uses illustrations in his sermons and how any speaker can master the art of using them effectively.

In your digging and building, you determined how you want your audience to think and behave differently, and you established how you’re going to move them, logically, from their current way of thinking to a new perspective. That’s what I’m calling the structure of your message. Now we’ll use illustrations to make your structure both attractive and approachable. Let me explain what an illustration is and what makes an illustration work.

Illustrations Clarify and Motivate

An illustration uses something familiar to the audience as a means of explaining something unfamiliar. But an illustration is more than mere analogy or metaphor; an illustration has two, equally important objectives.

The first is clarity. A good illustration clarifies what seems mysterious or obscure to the listener. The second objective of illustration is motivation. A good illustration not only helps to clarify the mysterious or obscure, it also helps the listener appreciate the relevance of a particular point.

An illustration starts out like a picture, bringing clarity to a truth. It allows the listener to “see” what’s being said. Then an illustration turns into a mirror, allowing the listener to gain “insight” into how this new truth affects him or her. Finally, the illustration becomes a window, and therefore provides “vision,” transforming the new truth into mental images that prompt the listener to envision the world. In a practical sense, an illustration paints a picture in the imagination using the listener’s own experiences.

Never forget, however, you’re creating this work of art in the listener’s mind, so you’re not limited to colors and shapes. You can also paint with sound, flavor, aroma, texture, and even emotion. In fact, the more senses you can involve in creating an illustration, the more powerfully clear you can make your point and—most importantly—demonstrate the relevance of this new truth.

Good Illustrations Are True

For years, I have kept close at hand a newspaper clipping about a man who fought a snake. It’s amazing how the truth of an illustration carries such weight. Because a real man engaged in a real fight for his life, the audience feels his urgency. Their skin crawls. They experience the life-or-death struggle more keenly. Their stomachs churn. That’s because they can empathize with a real person unlike some hypothetical character in a made-up story.

If you have to use a story or a situation that isn’t true, say so up front. Otherwise, the audience will feel they have been deceived . . . because, in fact, they were.

Good Illustrations Are Personal

If a good illustration is true, then a great illustration is personal. I mean by “personal” something you experienced or witnessed firsthand. Believe it or not, your audience wants to know about you as a living, breathing individual, not just what you have to say. Your speaking from firsthand experience allows them to connect with you personally, almost as naturally as meeting you one-on-one.

Personal illustrations work for the same reasons true illustrations do. People empathize better with a real person than a fictional character, and they can empathize better with you than anyone. You’re there. They can see you. And if you tell the story from the heart, they will feel your emotions as you relate what you experienced.

By the way, transparency is generally a very good quality in a speaker, as long as you use some discretion. You don’t have to tell them everything. (In fact, please don’t!) It’s unwise to use the pulpit or the lectern as a psychologist’s couch. And you want to avoid any illustration from your own experience that might distract the audience from understanding your point more clearly and feeling its relevance more deeply. You don’t want to erode your audience’s confidence in your ability to speak to an issue.

If you have blown it in some way and the matter hasn’t been resolved, it’s best not to tell the world. Unresolved problems and ongoing conflicts don’t make good illustrations because they take the audience out of learning mode and put them in problem-solving mode.

Be transparent, but keep the focus on clarity and relevance. If you use someone you know—and especially someone known by the audience—be sure to get his or her permission ahead of time. I even do this with my own family, including my children. Almost without exception, the person graciously agrees. However, if there is reluctance, I honor it by not going there.

Good Illustrations Are Essential

Illustrate to

  • Introduce your message
  • Make something memorable
  • Clarify the mysterious or obscure
  • Show relevance
  • Elucidate history
  • Kindle the emotions

I often close with an illustration that’s calculated to connect the intellectual content of the message with the listener’s emotions. This is not to coerce a decision or manipulate people in any way, but to communicate with the whole person.

I can’t imagine preaching without using illustrations. Those who don’t illustrate are saying, in essence, “I don’t care if you don’t understand; that’s your problem.” That may sound overly harsh, but I actually heard a seminary professor say to students, “You’re speaking to a lot of people who don’t think very deeply; that’s their problem.” That was many years ago. Today, I would be tempted to push him aside, take over the class, and say, “No, actually, as a proclaimer of truth, you must make the audience’s shortcomings your problem. It’s your job to help them understand God’s truth and think deeply.”

You can’t be responsible to make people listen, but you must do everything possible to overcome the innumerable barriers between your message and their hearts. After all, we don’t speak merely to be heard; we speak so that the truth we tell might become a catalyst for change.

That’s a tall order for any public speaker. It’s a matter of eternal consequences for the preacher. The change I seek from my position behind the pulpit has everlasting significance for the souls of the people gathered on Sunday morning, so I will use every resource at my disposal to reach them.

From Touching Others with Your Words by Charles R. Swindoll, copyright © 2013. Reprinted by permission of FaithWords, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 162–67, 171–74, 176, 178–79, 181–82. 

Make Your Ending Memorable

In the following edited excerpt from his book, Touching Others with Your Words, Chuck Swindoll encourages you to really think through the ending of your message and teaches you how to deliver the most stirring conclusion.

Of all the elements that comprise a sermon or a speech, none is more important than the conclusion. The last few moments you spend with an audience can, literally, make or break the whole message. You can’t fling a message toward the audience like a baseball, hoping it flies close enough to catch. On the contrary, if there’s anything you don’t leave to chance, it’s the last thought you leave ringing in their ears.

A Conclusion’s Threefold Purpose

A solid conclusion accomplishes a threefold purpose. First, to add a final “why” to the question of “how” answered by the application. Ideally, good exegetical exposition will prepare the audience’s heart to say, “So what? Show us how to put this information into action.” While the application feeds the mind, an effective conclusion appeals to the will; it prompts the audience to action. That’s the primary difference between teaching and preaching. Therefore, the spirit of a sermon is motivational throughout and devotes a greater portion of time to stimulating audience response.

Second, a good conclusion satisfies the audience’s desire for a feeling of closure. A message without a conclusion feels like someone turning and walking away in the middle of an interesting conversation. A hasty, unplanned final conclusion is rude, leaving the audience feeling abruptly dismissed, like they aren’t important to you.

Third, an effective conclusion ties up any loose ends, unifies the principles and applications under a common theme, and summarizes the message. Ideally, your ending words should help the audience restate the essence of your talk in a sentence or two. If they haven’t captured it beforehand, they’ll need to grasp it in the conclusion.

Transition Clearly and Smoothly from Beginning

A well-planned conclusion doesn’t feel tacked on . . . because it isn’t! It fits with the flow of the message. To make that happen, you begin transitioning to the conclusion virtually from the introduction. Each element of the message must be considered an incremental move toward the final thought. Moreover, the transitions between elements need to be smooth.

To help with transitions, many people craft a good sentence, which they write in their notes, and then memorize it. The transitions between elements help the audience subconsciously learn your pattern as a speaker so that, when you reach the end, the transition to the conclusion feels just like any other. They will know you’re headed for the home stretch, but they stay with you. Very often, when I transition to the conclusion, people unconsciously close their Bibles and assume a different posture; they know we’re coming in for a smooth landing (hopefully!).

Stay on Time

Time is a constant concern for the preacher or speaker. You can lose yourself in a message as minutes pass like seconds. And you can sometimes draw the audience in so deeply they forget the clock as well. Nevertheless, time will become an issue sooner or later. You can’t “say it well” if you don’t end it well. And for a sermon, in which motivation is such a critical factor, sufficient time needs to be devoted to the conclusion.

A good rule of thumb for a sermon is what might be called the “25-50-25 rule.” Break your allotted time into quarters. Devote a quarter of your time to establishing a rapport with the audience and introducing the subject. Use the next two quarters to deliver the body of the message, an explanation of your points. Then reserve the remaining quarter for applying and concluding.

Three Ways to Close

I generally close a message in one of three ways: a summary, a story, or a statement.

A summary covers your main points, principles, and applications in brief fashion, which is effective if remembering the information is important. I don’t do this often because people remember what is relevant to them. They will remember the points that impacted them personally. But if you want to aid memory, repetition and review can be helpful. Unfortunately, this can easily come across as pedantic unless you do something creative, like propose an analogy or paint a vivid word picture. When used well, a creative summary not only aids the memory by providing an image, it shifts the audience from the rational side of their brains to the imaginative, emotional side.

Sometimes a good story can bring all of the points, principles, and applications together through illustration and, simultaneously, drive them deep into the audiences’ hearts. Sometimes, when typing out my notes, I’ll come to the end of the applications and I need a good closing. So, I’ll close up all my books, return them to my library shelves, tidy up my desk, lay aside my notes, and pray. Then, I get out of my study. I’ve been so close to the trees, as it were, I need to back away to see the forest. I’ll take a brief walk in the neighborhood or run some errands. I let my mind wander without ever drifting far from the message.

Sometimes sooner, sometimes much too late for comfort, the perfect story will occur to me. Usually it’s something I’ve read. A human interest story from the news or in a magazine. A compelling description of an event in history. A great illustration used in someone else’s book—I always give credit. A personal experience, or that of someone close. The beauty of a story is that it shows the application actively lived out by someone else. We see the results and hopefully want to see those results repeated in our own lives.

I have also closed with a strong statement or a quote. But you can’t just drop the line at the end; you have to set it up, usually with some information about the source. Context gives extra staying power in the minds of the audience.

A Final Thought about Final Thoughts

Show your listeners how the sovereignty and goodness of God prevails over every circumstance, even past sin. Let them know the Lord is for them, He wants them to do well, and explain how the applications lifted from Scripture will lead to a better future. People will come out of the woodwork to hear that. Never wander too far from grace.

The Word of God is both encouraging and empowering. Our messages, if they are lifted from Scripture, should be no less so. Keep up the good Word. And never stop learning how to “say it well.”

From Touching Others with Your Words by Charles R. Swindoll, copyright © 2013. Reprinted by permission of FaithWords, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 227–28, 231, 234–36, 242–45, 247. 

Aim toward Applications

In the following edited excerpt from his book, Touching Others with Your Words, Chuck Swindoll teaches how to apply principles drawn from a Bible passage’s interpretation to the unique circumstances of your hearers.

By the time I have completed my digging—observing the passage, examining the original language, considering the history, culture, and issues surrounding the original writing, and then deriving timeless principles—my theological understanding, personal life experience, and knowledge of the audience converge to yield specific applications. Those applications then become my target when building the message (title, introduction, and body). Beginning with the end in mind helps me keep the message lean and focused.

When I’m ready to nail down specific applications, I glance back at the pad with my early ideas for anything that might be usable. Then, I push everything aside, lean back in my chair, close my eyes, and use my imagination to put myself in other people’s shoes. I try to see life through their eyes as I consider several different categories.

What Might My Audience Need?

First, I think about what my audience might need. When I was invited to go overseas to minister to missionaries, I took some time to recall what it felt like to be on Okinawa [when I was in the Marine Corps], cut off from everything familiar and everyone meaningful to me. Earlier, I had asked a friend what need he thought I should address and he responded with one word: encouragement. I recalled how discouraged I became, especially around holidays, and how difficult it was to have no one to lean on. I let my mind linger in the world of the missionary as I knew it, reflected on past conversations with missionaries, and thought about what might encourage me if I were in their shoes.

What Challenges Does My Audience Face?

I also think in terms of challenges. I ask myself, “What challenges, trials, or difficulties will my audience face, and how can I equip them to succeed?” When asked to speak to a group of Ryder Truck leaders, I recalled what it was like to be out of town, alone in a hotel, feeling lonely and tired hundreds of miles from accountability—a perfect setup for a moral tumble. I remember having to be proactive in guarding my purity and the practical steps I took to remain above reproach. So, when the group convened . . . in Las Vegas . . . I spoke on integrity. The applications in my message addressed some sensitive areas, but because I spoke as a sympathetic fellow struggler, they received my practical suggestions without becoming defensive.

What Reproof Might Be Appropriate?

I wonder what reproof might be appropriate, although I tend to go easy with my tone. I don’t want to condescend or sound like I’m scolding. I did a lot of that when I was younger, but I’ve since learned to phrase reproofs as warnings and that the right choice of pronouns can make all the difference. I would say, for example, “All of us need to be warned about . . .” and then state the danger or call out the sinful behavior. That way, I don’t presume everyone in the audience is guilty, yet those who are blameworthy get the point. Also, by including myself in the reproof, I avoid talking down to my audience.

Shaping the Application Statements

As I think through the needs, challenges, and reproofs appropriate to my audience, I imagine how the timeless principles derived from the passage might address them. And then I spell out the applications as specific as possible. In the process, I tailor my notes to build toward those principles and applications. I make sure illustrations don’t sidetrack the audience or divert them from a head-on collision with their need to implement the Lord’s instructions. I shape my message like a funnel to capture as much of the congregation as possible and then guide them all to the same destination: a personal encounter with the mind of God.

From Touching Others with Your Words by Charles R. Swindoll, copyright © 2013. Reprinted by permission of FaithWords, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 209–12.