Nick Morgan, President of Public Words Inc, says that most presentations fail because the presenter didn’t prepare well enough in two ways. And these two errors are so common and so important that he has written “Two Rules for Preparing a Successful Presentation.” 

Rule 1: Know thy audience
Here Morgan lists a number of helpful questions to ask before even starting to type the first Powerpoint bullet. Preachers could profitably ask themselves a version of these questions too. Thankfully, as we don’t preach to inebriated audiences too much, we probably don’t need President Reagan’s after-dinner speech rule: 12 minutes, a few jokes, and sit down before the audience stands up!

Rule 2: Tell them one thing, and one thing only
Though in the business of public speaking, Nick Morgan admits that the oral genre is highly inefficient:

We audience members simply don’t remember much of what we hear. We’re easily sidetracked, confused, and tricked. We get distracted by everything from the color of the presenter’s tie to the person sitting in the next row to our own internal monologues.

So you’ve got to keep it simple. Many studies show that we only remember a small percentage of what we hear — somewhere between 10 – 30 percent.

Unfortunately, we can only hold 4 or 5 ideas in our heads at one time, so as soon as you give me a list of more than 5 items, I’m going to start forgetting as much as I hear.

Morgan’s solution?

Against this dismal human truth there is only one defense: focus your presentation on a single idea. Be ruthless. Write that one idea down in one declarative sentence and paste it up on your computer. Then eliminate everything, no matter how beautiful a slide it’s on, that doesn’t support that idea.

John Stott argues for something similar to this in Between Two Worlds. He says the preacher should isolate the dominant thought of a passage and organize his whole sermon to support that one thought. Jay Adams has the same idea in Preaching with a purpose.

This is perhaps one of the hardest rules for preachers to follow. When we start preparing sermons, and God’s Word starts opening up, we discover vast riches of wonderful truth. We look out on our congregations and see that Joe needs this truth, and Julie must hear that truth, and Ben must get this, and…etc. So we gather all these truths and throw them out at all these people. And we’re surprised that no one seems to hear anything! Hmmm. Wonder why?

But if you need more motivation to clarify and simplify, how about Morgan’s great closer:

Follow these two rules and you’ll find that audience will remember — and maybe even act on — your speeches. After all, the only reason to give a speech is to change the world.