Ruthless and rigorous preparation will result in shorter and sharper sermons.

“Leave space and say less.” That’s the advice TED talks specialist Nicholas Negroponte gives to new TED speakers. It tracks with what President Woodrow Wilson said when he was asked how long it took him to prepare a speech:

“That depends on the length of the speech. If it is a 10-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

That’s why, whenever you hear a sermon that goes on too long, the reason is not that the preacher prepared too much. It’s that he prepared too little. It takes much more time to prepare a 40-minute sermon than a 60-minute sermon.

I usually have to spend about 2-3 hours cutting material out of most of my sermons. It’s the most demanding and painful part of the preparation, yet it’s these extra few hours that make the difference between an average sermon and a good sermon.

TED speakers are allowed a maximum of 18 minutes. The organizers have found it’s “short enough to hold people’s attention, including on the Internet, and precise enough to be taken seriously. But it’s also long enough to say something that matters.”

Now, I’m not advocating for 18 minute sermons (most congregations have been trained well enough to listen for longer), but most preachers would benefit from being forced to preach an 18-minute sermon from time to time.

According to Chris Anderson (author of  TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking) some TED speakers make the mistake of just speaking twice as fast, as they try to cram a 40-minute speech into 18 minutes. The result is usually a dry, conceptual, and superficial speech that falls flat. As Anderson puts it:

Overstuffed equals underexplained. To say something interesting you have to take the time to do at least two things: (1) Show why it matters . .  . what’s the question you’re trying to answer, the problem you’re trying to solve, the experience you’re trying to share? (2) Flesh out each point you make with real examples, stories, facts.

But this all takes time, which means the only option is to slash the number of topics covered to a single connected thread — your throughline. The result is “you cover less, but the impact will actually be significantly greater.”

Anderson tells the story of one of the most popular TED speakers, Brené Brown, who also struggled to meet TED’s tight time demands. She recommends this simple formula:

“Plan your talk. Then cut it by half. Once you’ve grieved the loss of half of your talk, cut it another 50 percent. It’s seductive to think about how much you can fit into 18 minutes. The better question for me is, ‘What can you unpack in a meaningful way in 18 minutes?’”

I’ve often dreamed of a “TED talks for preachers,” where we would be forced to “leave space and say less.” The long-term effect would not be more 18-minute sermons, but more 40-minute sermons that feel like 18 minutes rather than 80.

Ruthless and rigorous preparation will result in shorter and sharper sermons.

More articles in the Preaching Lessons from TED Talks series.