The Anatomy Of Attention . . . .

experience 1

There are different ways to begin a message!

Change It Up!

If you are a “serial-speaker” who address the same audience week after week, they already have an idea of how you are going to begin your message.  Your pattern gives them reason to just listen to you in the “background of their mind’s attention” . . . .

“Open up your Bibles to Ephesians chapter 5 . . . . We are in a series which covers what Paul has to say to Ephesians Christians concerning God’s salvation plan . . . . . Let me review a little from last week . . . .  Now, in chapter 5 –  as we have seen – Paul is instructing the Ephesians about . . . . .”

The audience settles back into “passive listening mode” because they know that they are not going to miss anything and/or anything which is that important.  In fact, the truth may be that if they stepped into the auditorium five to ten minutes after the message has begun, they would be as benefited as those who were already there.

This happens because there is an “anatomy of interest and attention”!. . . .

People have been created with a desire for variety, change, newness, movement, color, difference, action. 

Have you noticed that the image on a TV screen changes about every 3-4 seconds?

Check out how the advertisements for various drugs attempt to grab visual attention with action, pictures, movement, and scenes during the required verbalization of the side-effects.

Every second, our brains are firing off thousands of neurons, ALL which are being excited by various calls for attention.  The various senses are all sending calls for focus — the ears, the eyes, and even the nose are all finding themselves alerted by an avalanche of stimuli.  It has been stated that our five senses transmit billions of signals to the brain every second.

At times, there are even avalanches of calls for attention.  Just recently there was an electrical malfunction with the air conditioning system, and as the smell of burning electronics began to waft slowly and increasing across the congregation, few were focused any longer on the speaker, but people began looking at other people for confirmation — “Do you smell what I smell?  Should we be concerned?”

Out of place smells, sudden sounds, people walking in or out, loud sounds, restless children in one’s sight, a child exiting -reentering, the seating of a person who has arrived late, etc. — all call for focus or attention!

While our minds process a lot of such data, fortunately, we are able to “multi-process.”  The mind is also able to select out what is worth more or less of our attention.  We have learned to ignore much of the random data, disregard the meaningless, and stay focused on the relevant.

How do people decide what is important and/or relevant? 

How do people who are “mentally multi-tasking” know what to give their interest and attention? 

How does the mind tell other parts of the mind that this might be or should be of interest?

The reality is that mind does make a decision as to what should be given its focus!

The audience knew to give their attention to the smell of something burning.  Why?  Why did they not ignore it?  If it had been the smell of food cooking, it might have briefly distracted them to think thoughts unrelated to what was being said at the moment.

Immediately, most might rightly say — “Surely because of concerns of safety.”  But even as it relates to safety, safety only became a concern because the smell was out of the ordinary!  It was not what they anticipated or expected.*

Had the church been located close or next to a dump, there would have been far less of a concern.  In that scenario, the mind might have been momentarily distracted, but then shifted into neutral — “It is just that dump again!  Same old, same old.” — Until it was believed to be a smell that no longer could be identified with a dump, or with the past strength of such smells.

Likewise, repeat listeners . . . .

quickly pick up “the same old, same old” and shift into neutral


quickly pick up the difference, and it captures their attention and interest


Various rhetorical techniques offer some different ways to create variety and change.


Daniel Akin, author, and professor of Homiletics provides an example of introducing and beginning a message differently.  It is not necessarily better, but it is different.  The structure is quantifiable, “template-able.”


(Audio clip — Daniel Akin – “Worthy Is the Lamb — Revelation 5)

When I was in graduate school at the University of Texas — I encountered there what you could describe as a kaleidoscope of world views

there were persons in that program of study just like me a Bible-believing evangelical Christian

but there were others in the program we had a completely different way of looking at life altogether


some of my classmates actually referred to themselves as neo-orthodox Christians, and by that, they meant something like this — I don’t believe the Bible is the Word of God, but I believe the Bible can become God’s word to you — in some type of mystical or subjective experience


some other classmates without any hesitation said — I consider myself to be a liberal Christian — and by that they mean they were skeptical about the supernatural aspects of the Bible — they were not sure that Jesus was virgin born — they were not sure that he performed miracles — they were not sure that he rose from the dead — but they liked the moral teachings of the Bible especially things like the Sermon on the mount


other of my classmates came from different world religions altogether

I had

classmates that were Buddhist

classmates that were Muslim

classmates that were Hindu

a number of my classmates were Jewish

and some of my classmates

and almost all of my professors were either agnostic are committed to atheism


I remember one evening in a class in rhetoric — sitting under a teacher who was an avowed atheist — committed he said to a relativistic world-view way of thinking


in that class one evening a girl – a young lady asked the professor


I think a very profound question


she asked him


what do you think the future holds for mankind


and this agnostic Professor waited for a moment – and then he said well I am not very optimistic about the future


when I look at history, I discover a man has not treated man very well


and when I look at the contemporary situation, I discovered not much has changed


and then he made a statement that I’ve never forgotten


He said – I believe the future holds for mankind certain destruction and potential annihilation.  — I am not very hopeful about the future.


Now let me say something to you  — if I were an atheist or an agnostic like that professor — I would agree with him


If man must save himself — I got news — we’ve got no hope


He’s right – if it depends upon you and me the future is one of certain destruction and potential annihilation.



Akin illustrates a different way to go about beginning or introducing a message.  Whether it works for a message you are working on or not, a desire for variety considers the options.

The method can be quantified with a simple template, although you may not have thought about the steps which compose his approach.

#1) A Personal Speculative Experience:  Dan Akin uses a personal experience which is more than just a personal experience, but it is an insightful experience!

Akin begins with an account from his days in a secular graduate school.  The possible experiences from which a speaker can choose are varied and numerous.  But notice that it is not just a personal family, vacation, or marital kind of speculative experience.  It is an experience which relates to thought, examination, contemplation, evaluation.  It has analytical potential.

Now a family or vacation experience has that potential.  I understand that.  A child could have shared something that was mind-provoking, insightful, didactic — i.e., “Did you hear what that child said in response to . . . . Even at such a young age, a child understands that . . . .”

•  Compose a list of some varied experiences which might be useful in the future!


#2) Brief Context:  Akin identified three or four groups of people in that situation.  I imagine that there could have much more detail included, but the main point of the example was in what the professor said.  Briefly lay out the necessary details of the experience which are helpful and necessary to provide a contextual picture.

Keep the Focus!

experience 2


#3) Audience Identification: Akin chose to identify the people in his class based on their various religious orientations.  Likewise, the professor’s religious orientation was identified.  All this helped understand the professor’s answer, as well as helping to see his answer in the light of the possible varied religious world-views which were present, and . . . .

which would be of interest to his audience, or

which might represent some members of his present audience.


#4) Attention Words:  Notice the words, phrases, and pauses which call for our attention and interest! . . . .

and then he made a statement that I’ve never forgotten

He said – “I believe the future holds for mankind certain destruction and potential annihilation  — I am not very hopeful about the future.”

Now let me say something to you  — if I were an atheist or an agnostic like that professor — I would agree with him

If man must save himself — I got newswe’ve got no hope

He’s right – if it depends upon you and me – the future is one of certain destruction and potential annihilation.

#5) Connect It: Now listen to how he connects what has just been said  — to the value and purpose of Revelation 5 and therefore to his message.  Connect the introduction CLEARLY to the passage and what is to come!

By the way, Dan Akin announces a great purpose statement for the message . . . .


You and I likewise — now I hope — will leave this time of worship with the same vision of the Lord Jesus as they have of Him of heaven.



This is a five-step rhetorical template, not a “stone-template.”  You can vary it any way you want, but this and other “rhetorical templates” will . . . .

  • will help you avoid “the same old, same old”
  • get the mental juices flowing
  • give you a place to start
  • layout mental patterns of thinking which then foster other options
  • have you think thoughts you haven’t thought of before
  • will cause you to think — VARIETY
  • create initial attention and/or interest



*Another contrast:  Now if you lived in Trenton, NJ near the “Champale” brewing & bottling plant on Lamberton Street, you would become accustomed to the smell of fermenting alcohol.  Likewise, there would be other neighborhoods where various smells were common to that area.

You probably have some examples of this as well, AND you can even use this concept as an illustration . . . . just like the idea of  — “Getting used to the dark” when it comes to spiritual lethargy or complacency.


2 thoughts on “The Anatomy Of Attention . . . .

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