Rhetoric & Homiletics: 6 Factors That Help People Remember What You Said.

points to remember  

Have You Heard This Story?

“A Baltimore doctor was driving home from a country club dance late one night in the summer of 1945. As he slowed at an intersection near the city, he spotted a young girl dressed in a sheer evening gown, beckoning for a lift. He jammed the brakes and motioned for her to climb into the backseat. “What on earth,” he said, “is a youngster like you doing out here all alone at this time of night?” “It’s too long a story,” said the girl. “Please, please take me home. I’ll explain everything there.” She named an address close to where he lived. Concerned, the doctor drove rapidly back into the city until he found the address. But when he arrived and turned around, the backseat was empty. He leaped from the car and ran to the front door, ringing the bell. His mind raced. Could she have fallen from the car? The door opened, and a gray-haired man stared out at him. “Sir,” the doctor began. “I know this sounds strange, but I picked up a young girl on Highway 1 about an hour ago. She gave me this address. She lives here. …” “That’s not possible,” the man said. Confused, the doctor peered into the entranceway, where he spotted a framed photo on the desk – picturing the same young woman. “That’s her!” the doctor said, pointing. “That’s the girl!” “That girl, sir, was my daughter,” the man said. “She was killed in an automobile accident on that highway almost twenty years ago. …” [1]


This story was referenced in the Sanford Social Innovation Review, which reported a study  on the elements which marked such “urban legends.”


Why is it that this urban legend
continues to stay alive?


Why is it that this urban legend, along with many others, survives all the repeated attempts to correct the record?

Why are they so enduring? What makes them stick? Why do so many believe, for example, that Mikey from the Life cereal commercial died after consuming Pop Rocks and soda? Or that drugged travelers have awakened in icefilled bathtubs to discover their kidneys have been harvested? If I could understand why urban legends persisted, I reasoned, I might be able to uncover lessons for leaders of organizations, who also need to make ideas stick. [2]


These urban legends were examined in order to answer the question, “Why are such apocryphal stories part of a cultural memory?”

The answer to that question has some very practical implications for speaking and preaching.  Obviously, what value is it, if what a speaker or preacher says is not remembered?

♦  What makes communication gluey?
♦  Is there a way that a speaker or preacher can help a message or an idea to stick?
♦  Are there apparent factors that make a word, phrase, story, or speech memorable?
♦  What promotes “stickability?”

The author’s examination produced a list of six characteristics that are present in many, if not most, urban legends, and which seemingly help them to last from decade to decade, if not generation to generation.  The urban legends were . . . .

√  Simple
√  Unexpected
√  Concrete
√  Credentialed
√  Emotional
√  Stories

While those six words might seem sufficient to understand the author’s point, there are some other interesting factors connected with each of those six elements . . . .

√ Simple:  The magical number of items which can be remembered by an audience is SEVEN — plus or minus two.  According to George Miller, the human “bandwidth” or “channel capacity”  begins to drop information when it exceeds seven.

√ Unexpected:  When something is said, referred to, visualized, or pictured, which is totally unexpected, the retention is increased.  I was recently reminded of that as an adjunct professor at Keiser University.  The student said something like this . . . .

This is a picture of Miss Smith, she opted for elective cosmetic surgery.  After several consultations as to what changes she wanted made to her nose, the day arrived on which she would have the surgery performed.  All went very well and after a period of recovery, she was driven home to fully heal.

She was buried six days  later.

What happened?  What happens to far too many others who have elective cosmetic surgery across the nation.


√ Concrete:  The more abstract the communication, the less it is remembered.  Rather than saying . . . .

Abortions per year: 1,058 million
Abortions per year: a little over 1 million
ns per day: 2,899
Abortions per hour: 120

. . . . I have been speaking approximately 5 minutes . . . . 10 abortions have taken place . . . 1 every 30 seconds.


√ Credentialed: Credibility has always been an element of persuasion, but it is also an element of recall.

Who is speaking?
What supports is a so-called “factoid?”
Is that believable or even plausible?

All affect attention and retention.  Some listeners will tune out immediately if he/she believes you are overstating the case and/or making comments which are not or cannot be accurate — even if they are accurate!

Let me highlight that last category.  Some facts, actually true statements, lack credibility because they exceed our experience or plausibility limits.

If I stated to you that the temperature in Tampa, Florida has never reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit, you might not believe that fact — and it is a fact.  On any particular day, it might have felt like it was 100 or over, but only because of the humidity.  The 100-degree record has never been reached.

If several months ago, I had stated that approximately 20,000 – 30,000 people die every year of the seasonal flu, across the United States, that fact — and it is a fact — might well have been rejected as statistically true.  No longer is such the case.

In both cases, an audience may find that implausible and/or outside of their experience.

I don’t know of anyone who died  — died — you mean died of the seasonal flu.


There are times in New Jersey it gets over 100, and Tampa is a much further south!  —  Can’t be true!

Making statements that push the limits of credibility or plausibility — true or not — can not only damage “ethos” — personal credibility — but also retention.  The truthfulness of these statements is not at issue — both are true —  but supporting the truthfulness of such comments is basic to an audience’s attention and retention.

The truthfulness of the statement is not the issue,
but supporting the truthfulness of some statements
is critical to persuasion and retention.


√ Emotional: This is where many might part ways when it comes to biblical preaching and teaching.  “Emotions” and “preaching” are considered in opposition to each other when it comes to ministry.  Preaching is about “truth” — “biblical principles” — doctrine — “thus saith the Lord,”  not emotions.

We all recognize that emotion is part of God’s creation and part of man’s created being.  There was a reason that the Scriptures state that the forbidden tree “was pleasant to the eye.”   “Beauty,” “passion,” “negative and positive emotions,” “the Temple,” “the eternal city,” “the garments of the priesthood,” “the created universe,” “Old & New Testament stories,” etc . . . . .  are all part of living in a world of emotions.

Sterile preaching, which only addresses the mind, and not the heart and feet, will leave the lives of God’s people the same way — sterile.


√ Stories: Stories are remembered longer!  Proof — which is more remembered . . . .

That is why . . . .

•  the majority of the Bible is a narrative
•  the story of David & Goliath is remembered better than the 10 Commandments
•  Jesus used parables
•  people enjoy the gospel accounts more than the book of Galatians or Romans
•  people remember an illustration more than the passage you preached from
•  so many truths are pictured by types
•  children (and adults) remember Bible stories and characters

THEREFORE:  Make sure that the “illustration,” “story,” “verbal picture,” “analogical illustration” is connected to the truth you are teaching out of that passage of Scripture.


It is not whether you can incorporate all six ideas into a message this week, but can you change up part of that sermon in a way that makes it more “sticky?”

√  Can you simplify a concept and/or the BigIdea you are aiming at in a message?

√  Is there something that is unexpectedly part of the passage which can be highlighted?

√  Is there a way to make that idea or fact more concrete?

√  If there is a statement that strains credibility or plausibility, which is worth supporting?

√  Can you paint a more vivid picture of that truth or biblical principle?

√  Is there a way to be more narrative than didactic?




1. September 2003 from http://www.snopes.com/horrors/ghosts/vanish.htm.




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3 thoughts on “Rhetoric & Homiletics: 6 Factors That Help People Remember What You Said.

  1. My favorite sermon memory as a youth…A man went to the doctor and said “Doctor, doctor, I broke my arm in seven places!” and the doctor said “You gotta stay out of those places”.
    I don’t remember the passage but it sure helped me as a teen in making choices.
    Too bad I don’t have many sermon memories.


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