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
- 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.