“Today we’re going to talk about Justice.” As I listened to the pastor begin his sermon I was interested because I had been longing for more clarity on this issue for a while. Unfortunately, that was the last I heard of justice until the closing. I left the service feeling disappointed, like I had never received what had been offered in the first few lines.
When I sat down with my notes the next day, I realized that I had been wrong. He had actually spoken about Justice the entire time but kept calling it everything but “justice.” The pastor had a section on equity, on fairness, on oppression and prejudice. The pastor had spoken about Justice the whole time, but had failed to use one of the most important tools in a speaker’s tool chest: Labeling.
Labeling is simple and powerful. It is the deliberate choice of key words (labels) that are used to clarify key points and signal to the listeners that you are talking about a main subject.
As we listen to people speak, our brains are wired to look for repetition. When we hear terms repeated, our brain automatically makes connections and categorizes what we’ve heard in ways that not only helps us process what we heard, but makes it easier to recall in the future.
How do we do this effectively?
1. Be intentional about your labels .
Since you are choosing these words to crystallize your thoughts into a single idea, take a moment to pull up an online thesaurus and be sure you have the right one. Once you have what you think is the right candidate, think through how the meaning of the word changes in different forms. For example, “love” is a powerful word, but its meaning changes dramatically when it appears in the form “lover.”
2. Every main point gets one
Each of your main points needs an intentional label. It needs a single word that people can hear and know that you haven’t yet moved on.
3. Beginning, Transitions, and End
Using labels works best when they pop up right at the beginning of your sermon in some sort of preview statement. My friend might have said, “We are going to discover how Justice explains fairness, equity, and prejudice.” Then, each transition statement returns to the appropriate labels like, “You see, fairness is the beginning of Justice, but the next step is equity.” Finally, the entire conclusion should be structured around the same set of labels.
4. Listen don’t Read
Labeling is something particularly suited for listening. In fact, it can be come off as redundant when we experience it in written form. If all you do before delivering your sermon is a silent read through, you will likely find yourself replacing your labels with synonyms to make it read better. However, the goal of a sermon is not to make sense when it is read, but when it is heard. Give yourself time to hear your sermon before you deliver it.
The best part about this tool is that it doesn’t take a lot of extra time. If you take a couple extra minutes to make sure you are clearly labeling your ideas, your people will not only better understand what you are trying to say, they will be much more likely to remember it when they get to lunch.