Rhetoric & Homiletics: What May Cause You To Lose Your Audience!

wagon train 1.jpg  Stay With Me!

In the 1700 and 1800s, there were “wagon trains” composed of hundreds of individuals traveling with all their earthly possessions loaded in a covered wagon — called “prairie schooners because they looked like ships moving across the great plains of America.”

People and goods began in the East and headed for Oregon or Texas over the “Oregon” or “Santa Fe Trail.”

One of the meeting places would be near the Missouri River where sellers of goods, guides, supplies, saloons, and places of rest, stables and horse sellers were positioned.  When the weather was favorable, the wagon trains would take off just before the rising of the sun (4 am) and travel until at least 4 pm.

However, some never finished the trek but dropped out along the way.  The Oregon Trail stretched out approximately 2,000 across Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming — across rivers, through mountains, midst weeks of scorching weather.

oregon trail.jpg

The goal of the wagon master was to get everyone to the well laid out and planned destination.  But some dropped out along the way — for various reasons . . . .  Some . . .

• lost sight of the goal
• are not sure they are going to make it to the end
• find that where “this place” works
• are frightened by rivers which look really deep
• lost interest
• are stop after seeing others drop out
• are discouraged by mountains which seem too high
• lost confidence in the wagon master – that he can get them there
• are worn out as it all takes its daily toll on them
• feel lost!

The goal of any and all public speakers is to move the audience to the planned destination — but the speaker-preacher can easily “lose some” along the way and fail to keep people on track.  Have you heard the phrase — “Are you tracking? — Are you tracking with me?”

Part of the responsibility of any and all speakers — including preachers — is to keep people moving along with you for the whole 30-40 minute trip.

Don’t buy into the idea that you just lay out the truth, and if people don’t get it, it is their fault or problem.  Families load up their cars on Sunday morning and are willing to pull out with you — the wagon master — to what they believe is today’s destination.  They are looking for  a spiritual meal which will keep them up and going on the trail for another week day.

But some listeners may “drop out” along the way — for some of the same various reasons!  One reason is that last one — they feel lost — not spiritually or eternally but rhetorically.

“I’m LOST!”
“Where is he going with all this?”
“It sounds like a hodgepodge of religious ideas, verses, comments, stories — but I can’t put it together!”
“I don’t know if we are going anywhere.”
“At the end of the whole hour, I’m not sure I will have anything that has helped me to make it another week.”

There is “poor-to-no” flow of the content.

Or the flow is “stop n’ go.”

The speaker is creating a lot of “rhetorical static and disarray” and the listeners can’t follow the thinking of the speaker — he/she can’t track it.

The mind is looking for structure, a pattern, a movement of thought, roads signs or clues as to where we are headed.

Many of us have experienced that sense of “lostness” if you have listened to someone tell a seemingly pointless story.  You expect the story to be going somewhere — headed to a point which is going to be made at the end.  But the longer you listen, you are not sure that there is a destination or that the destination is worth your time / this much time.

While you . . . .

understood all the words spoken
were really trying to track the story
looking for the movement of thought
pictured the images being described and included
believed for a good while that it was all going somewhere

. . . . after a good amount of time, the story just ended.  You, along with others, didn’t know exactly how to respond because you were lost — “What was the point he/she was making?”

It is not an overstatement that “transitional phrases” are KEY to . . . .

• keeping an audience tracking with you!
• making it to “Oregon”
• lessening the probability that people will drop out along the way
• engendering confidence in you as their wagon master, who will get them to the day’s destination
• ensuring them that the “wagonmaster” has a clear plan
• keeping the fellow travelers interested

As you build a message, the parts, sections, elements, details, information, points, descriptions, explanation, illustrations, theological details, etc. laid out in your time of study, may or may not be useful in getting you to your goal with an audience.

• Some of the material may be and indeed is interesting.
• Some of that material may help you arrive at a correct understanding of the passage and point(s) you are making.
• Some of the work done in the study may be very useful for a message which is aimed a different direction.

But if you do a “data dump” when preaching, you may create so much static and disarray that the audience is lost and/or suspects they may never arrive at a destination by lunch time.

So much time has been taken up with all the part and pieces, the technical details, the extensive historical context, the Greek-Hebrew words, explanations of this-and-that — that the listeners are saying. . . .

“Where are we going with all this?”
“I’m not sure there is going to be anything practical for me at the end — and that is the destination, isn’t it?
“I am confused.  What was that part for?  How does that fit in?”

The inclusion and exclusion of material — regardless of all a speaker-preacher may have learned in the study and has down on their yellow notebook pad — is included because it gets the audience to the next “chunk.”

Think about sermons as building various portions / chunks — which have a combined purpose.  You can even label the “chunks” as to what they are there to accomplish . . . .

√ clarifying
√ argument
√ proof for what I am saying
√ insight (by seeing what the word means)
√ contrast (what we are not talking about it)
√ comparison (we know what this is like)
√ illustrating it

What gets you to the next “chunk?”

What keeps the portions or chucks cohering and moving?

What glues the “chucks” together as a whole?


Transitions are certain words, which are purposefully part of our language and which are designed to inherently reflect “movement” of thought, movement between the chunks which compose a message.  Transitions are purposefully created words used to alert a person’s mind to the realization that the speaker is mentally moving and/or asking the listener to follow him/her.

Some of the typical words include . . . . .


These transition words are part of our language because they grammatically — but also logically and mentally — direct a listener’s thinking.

They are road signs — “We are turning here.”

Transitions keep people going down your road.

While I understand that we all use “transitions” . . . .

even though we may not be paying attention to their use
even though we may not be consciously using them
even though we may not be able to grammatically identify them

Nevertheless, transitions AND “transitional-phrases” effects whether an audience follows you to this week’s destination – whether they are tracking with you.

Without paying attention to the use of transitionary words and phrases, a speaker will lose the audience!  Obviously, there are exceptions because an audience can be highly motivated to so-focus on a message that they can mentally insert the missing grammatical indicators which signal a change of direction — “Oh, okay we are going down that road of “Shadrack-Meshack-Abednego” because that is an example of what he was talking about.”

The list of grammatical transitions is well-known.  Google “grammar and transtions” and you will find many links which layout the list.  But Google “transitional phrases” and you will probably get the same results because transitional phrases don’t fall into the same grammatical delineation.

“Transitional Phrases” have the same ability to direct an audience, to alert the audience that a move is being made, follow me.  However, the phrases do not necessarily use the standard grammatical words — some do.

Here are some useful transitional phrases.

As you look at them, you will see that these phrases not only give direction to a message-speech, but they also have the potential to pull in the attention of the listeners, and to excite a speaker’s creative juices during the stage of preparation.

It gets better.  Notice what happens
We’re not through yet . . . .
As if that is not enough, he/she/they
Yes, you heard me right and let me explain that
Let me tell you how that works
Have you ever wondered why?
Don’t you just hate it / cringe / wonder when
Have you ever found yourself in this situation and thought
What if you could
But wait — there’s more
Does this situation sound all too familiar?
Think about that for a moment.
It’s a familiar story, and it usually goes like this
You’ve tried everything, but not seen this answer
It begins with a feeling of
I know the feeling.  I’ve been there
Let me guess — take a wild guess
Deep down you probably know the answer
It is the question many are looking for
For the first time it may dawn on  / it dawned on me / dawns on you . . .
Still not convinced?
What’s the catch?
Do you see where this is going / we’re going?
Sound silly / wrong / impressive?  It’s not!
And what is worse is . . . .
Let’s look at another example of that . . . .
Here is why . . . .
Here is when that happens . . . .
Here are the details . . . .
Let’s see how this works . . . .
I can almost hear you saying in your mind that . . . .
And now you are saying to yourself . . . .
Stay with me as I explain / clarify / illustrate / develop . . . .

As I stated that they have the ability to help you in your preparation.  Try it.  As you work on your message, fly over these various transitional phrases-sentences.  I think you will realize that such a flyover help you think about some of the directions you could bring your audience and/or ways to develop the point(s) you are making.

In conclusion (that’s a transition — but as basic as it gets), transitions . . . . .

√ will excite your creatively — thinking about where you might move in the message
√ will clarify how you can alert your audience as to where you are bringing them
√ are useful in explaining how the “chunks” fit together and/or are linked.
√ may reveal how you can excite an audience’s curiosity, focus, and/or interest

*You have probably seen the advertisement where someone interjects a comment into a situation where it has no application — followed by “What does that have to do with ___?___.”  Response — “Nothing.”
** An Aside: As a pastor, my goal was to get everyone to “California” as a church.  As we grew from 80 people to over 500, we lost some along the way.  Some we lost because of the “wagonmaster” – me.  Nevertheless, pastors become more realistic over time and realize that some people leave will leave the wagon train for various reasons — over the years of travel.

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