Friday, March 13, 2015

Brevity, Clarity, Profundity: Speech that Sizzles

Last night I sat through a worship service where the the preacher spoke for an hour and ten minutes. About fifty minutes into the message, my mind began to wonder about the optimum time for the spoken word. 

When you type a text message you must limit your communication to 160 characters before the text is split into two separate texts. A seventy-five-year-old German communications specialist named Friedhelm Hillebrand is the reason for this 160 character limit. Before texting was introduced as a cellular phone feature in 1985, Mr. Hillebrand and his research team created the industry standard for character limits per text based on the conclusions they reached during their research of emails and old-fashioned postcards.

Mr. Hillebrand's team discovered "most emails can be understood by reading the summary line." It is the summary line that readers recall. Rarely does the body of the email add to what is remembered about the email. In addition, Hillenbrand's research team observed that the best postcards were written in under 150 alphabetic characters. Clarity and profundity of the written word seemed proportional to brevity. To Hillenbrand's team, less written characters often translated into more emotional impact.

Because Hillenbrand's team set the industry wide cellular text character limit at 160,  Twitter creators (who were in preschool when texting was invented) were forced to limit individual tweets to 140 characters or less in order to keep individual tweets within the limits of a cellular text. The remaining 20 characters had to be used for the user's unique Twitter address. Written communication is forcibly brief in our cellular age, but there was scholarly intention and design behind this brevity.

But what about the spoken word? How long is optimum?

I am a huge fan of Ted Talks. There is an 18-minute rule for these wildly popular lectures. Regardless of the person's power or prestige, he or she has eighteen minutes to get the point across. From Bill Gates to the unknown housewife, it's eighteen minutes per talk. No exceptions.

The founder of Ted Talks gives us the reason for the eighteen minute rule for the spoken word
"It [18 minutes] is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention. It turns out that this length also works incredibly well online. It’s the length of a coffee break. So, you watch a great talk, and forward the link to two or three people. It can go viral, very easily. The 18-minute length also works much like the way Twitter forces people to be disciplined in what they write. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline."
It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.

I agree with him. Though I'm a fan of John Gill, Jonathan Edwards, and other 18th century preachers who spoke for an hour or more, and though I understand there are cultural factors when it comes to an optimum length of time when one speaks before an audience, I know that Jesus taught with brevity, clarity and profundity, but He lived long before texts, Twitter and Ted Talks.

As the hour and ten minute message came to a close last night,  I began to ask myself a few questions:

(1). When I go longer than 20 is it sign that I am less focus and prepared?
(2). Is a lengthy message characteristic of an undisciplined messenger?
(3). How much of what I say is designed to draw attention toward me and away from the message?

I realize there is no 'hard and fast' rule on this issue. If you are a professor at a university (as is my wife), and lectures are often two to three hours, the length is understandable. The impartation of knowledge is your goal.

We who preach have the goal of seeing lives transformed.

I'm wondering if we preachers aren't better served with more focus, greater discipline, and a tight timeline for reaching an audience in need of change.


John said...

Excellent post and so true. I emphasize this in my expository preaching class. I will give a little leeway here for expository preaching, up to 25 minutes, but, it does take discipline and no one can exhaust any subject in one message anyway. The audience needs to leave with one central idea,
I remember several years ago, Time magazine lauded a preacher from FBC Jackson Ms. as the greatest preacher in America. He used the 22 minute rule and said more in that time that many could say in 50 minutes. I'll be passing out copies of this post in my preaching class.

Anonymous said...

I'll have my stopwatch running this Sunday! ��
Curt Castillo

Anonymous said...

From the bottom of my heart, and from our bottoms, our family thanks you for this.

We are well aware that college lectures often go far beyond 20-30 minutes. So do movies and football games.

However, college lectures are for adults and those are usually quite motivated to be in that lecture. Movies and football games allow for some moving around and it is no biggie if the mind wanders.

As someone who takes children and teens to church to worship together as a family, I can tell you the lengthy puritan lectures or sermons so popular today often cause us to simply attend Sunday School and then go home.

We would prefer to stay. But if the music is going to run 45 minutes to an hour of standing, our backs and legs--young and old--give out. We don't enjoy looking at a sea of backsides and cannot sing from memory songs too new to have learned.

We often find ourselves mentally checked out of the service before the sermon. Then when the sermon is another 45-60 minutes, we start to literally loathe attending. It ceases to be worship or edification, and becomes torture or punishment for all of us.

It isn't a matter of giving God that much time a week. We find Him readily available and spend much time with Him all week. It is a matter of the brain can only absorb what the back and backside can endure.

Perhaps when Sunday church services stop trying to pack all of the God contact and all of the edification for the week into one service, making it a marathon of endurance, more people might actually attend.


Wade Burleson said...


Working on it! :)

Wade Burleson said...

John and Linda,

I am always appreciative of your remarks - particularly since I often learn from your comments than I do the research for a post.

Bob Cleveland said...

I agree completely with this post.

And for the same reason I dislike (intensely) Sunday School teachers who start their classes by asking "Now .. what did we talk about (decide/learn,discover,etc) last week? Lessons are taught (and taken) and sermons are preached so they can be incorporated into out lives. To impact us, as scripture is supposed to do.

The best sermon I have heard in a long time was a year ago when Chris Hodges spoke of, for perhaps 20 minutes: "What ONE THING can you remove from your life this year, to enable you to better follow Jesus?"

Gordon said...

The average feature film at the movies is anywhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours in length. No one seems to have a problem with this. The preacher will extend the attention of his listeners by using a variety of interesting teaching aids. Little by little and line upon line will help to reinforce the goal of the sermon. But the Baptist preacher must also be sensitive to the audience and not go on and on when he knows the Presbyterians are out and making their way to the favorite restaurants!

Ramesh said...

Not to be a contrarian just to differ with Wade, my experience is opposite. I have immensely enjoyed Wade's wed eve podcasts that are about 50 minutes in length. I found the talks to be more informal, a small class room gathering with give and take, passionate and revealing. The Sunday podcasts are about 20 to 35 minutes in length. For some reason (maybe the same reason I dislike Ted talks) I tended to prefer the longer length versions. Mind you this experience is from listening podcasts. A good reason why most Ted talks are scripted and rail roaded is this: Mathbabe > I kind of hate TED talks.

Ramesh said...

On TED Thinking and The Naked and the TED.

Ramesh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wade Burleson said...

Thy Peace,

Thanks for your comments! I consider Wednesday night a lecture (similar to a class room) and am not necessarily speaking for a change - but you bring up a great point!

I'm wondering if one should determine the purpose of the talk (motivation for change? Instructional? Training? etc...) and make the 'talk' the time length most appropriate.

It's the evangelistic message that I think could be briefer - the art of convincing people their need of Jesus.

Again, thanks!

Wade Burleson said...

One other note.

During Wednesday night people are seated around tables. :)

Keith said...

Interesting article and interesting comments. However, there is a difference between preaching God's Word and Tweeting, etc. I would be cautious about putting a time limit on the man of God who is preaching the Word of God under the leadership of the Spirit of God.

Unknown said...

Excellent post, Wade! There's no reason for a pastor to preach for longer than 35 or 40 minutes. The brevity of your messages are much appreciated!

Rex Ray said...


WOW! Wish I’d said that.

Is a person a song leader if he sings with his eyes shut or is he a performer?

Where/when did this idea start that standing is mandatory when singing?
I hear the argument a person can sing better if standing. HUH

How do they sing better if they’re upset from?
1. Fatigue
2. Songs they don’t know
3. Songs they do know but a different tune
4. A tune they know but different words
5. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat…

When I was about half the age I am now, the song leader met with the deacons and drew on a blackboard how he raised the spiritual level of the congregation to the top and then the preacher maintained that level until the service was over.

I asked how did he raise my spiritual level when I was in the parking lot listening to some real gospel songs. I asked why didn’t he ask the congregation what type of songs they wanted to hear.

He replied that I was too much in love with old songs. After he left, the chairman explained our song director had been trained to know what songs were best for us.
In a year he left and took a lot of people with him.

When my dad was in his 80’s, he was invited to preach at different churches. He never knew what time it was and once asked our mother to warn him about 5 minutes to 12 by raising a song book in front of her face.
By 12:30 she was standing and waving it over her head.

Another time he had an interpreter, but it took so long to interpret our Dad forgot what he’d said.
Mother said he preached from Genesis to Revelation.
Someone told him his best preaching was when he got off the subject.

Anonymous said...

You can be the next professor of preaching at SWBTS in my book!
Seriously, this post was fantastic.
Now, we can start our stopwatches to see how long it takes for my comment to get blasted by the loyalists.

Chris Riley said...

John, I had a professor challenge me years ago with the idea of preaching/teaching 1 truth multiple times during a week. I.e. Present the truth during Sunday morning worship, expound on the same truth on Wednesday, and talk about application of the truth in Sunday School. We have attempted a similar rhythm in student ministry and seen great results for interaction and application. BTW...I find 20-30 minutes to the max I keep peoples attention and I too an enamored with the model of TED talks.

Kent House said...

The questions you asked yourself during this overextended sermon regarding the focus and preparation of the speaker (#1) and the discipline of the speaker (#2) reminded me of a quote attributed to several public speakers throughout history, but most notably President Woodrow Wilson in or around 1918.

When asked how long it takes him to prepare for a speech, he replied, "That depends on the length of the speech. If it is a ten minute speech, it takes me two weeks to prepare it. If it is a half-hour speech, it takes me a week to prepare. If I can talk as long as I want to, it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now."

We pastors should take note.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Burleson,

Maybe you’ve heard a hundred of these kinds of stories, but so many times during a sermon I have wanted to say, “Wait, what did you just say again, please?” Or, “Excuse me, can I ask a question? You just said you’re convinced that everyone seeks God. How do you reconcile that with the verse that says, No man seeks after God, all have gone astray?” Or, “Your whole sermon has just been on Paul being wrong to go to Jerusalem because he was defying the Holy Spirit who spoke through his friends, tearfully warning him not to go to Jerusalem for his own safety, but Acts 23:11 says, “And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.” How can this be?”

I don’t think I would be the only one that benefits from these answers, but everyone who heard the sermons would have a better understanding of how this was possible. And frankly, we all benefitting at this one church in which there was a little raised area in the corner for a band, and other table with a cup and some fresh bread and a jar for tithes, and we all sat around tables and sand sons, and then someone (man or woman) would stand up and say something about how her week went, or what she had been impressed upon by God’s working in her life that week, or how she had had a bad experience that week, or someone would say a particular struggle or temptation he had gone through that week or was going through, or what someone was reading from the Bible that week and how it affected their walk, and some people might ask questions, or give encouragement, and then some one person or a few people might pray out loud, and then we’d sing some more songs, and this would go on for an hour or two or three.

And then someone would get up and bless the cup and the bread and take some himself, as this went on others would get up and take some grape juice and bread and drop some money or a check in the jar.

And then eventually one of the elders would stand up and recap all that had been said, and give his thoughts on the unifying thread. And then we’d have our post-service pot luck that went on for another hour or two, or three with people gradually shifting from table to table to sit and talk, and then gradually drifting off to go home.

I have never seen a group of Christians act like this before. There was a natural camaraderie and affection and an accountability (not that I necessarily believe in “accountability”) that came out of people being honest with each other and able to speak, pray or sing without asking permission, or violating a program. This is one of the two churches I attended that had no pastor, and as it turned out gave all of what he would have made in salary and perks to the neighboring poor.

I wish I had never had to move away from that area but it was a really wonderful church experience while I had it.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about this. The second sentence in the second paragraph should have read: And frankly, we all benefitted from this informality at this one church...