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.