Teaching Structure

By James M. Rochford

Once you get the basics of teaching down (see “Teaching Essentials”), you’re ready to structure or organize your teaching into a coherent format. Without a logical organization to your teaching, your content will become confused and incoherent.

Introduction: Setting the table before you eat

When you have Thanksgiving dinner, you set the table first. This isn’t the dinner itself, but it lets you make a transition from time with the family to dinner time. In teaching, we need to “set the table before we eat” too. People come from the heavy traffic and frantic pace of life, and need a moment of transition to listen to a lecture.

Set up the conflict. Everyone likes to watch a fight. When we sense people fighting at a restaurant or coffee shop, we can’t help but turn and look (or at least listen in!). To begin your teaching, set up the thesis and antithesis to show the gravity of your topic. What’s in it for the listener? Why should they care?

Explain a knowledge gap.[1] It’s helpful to ask questions, and then rule out the answers that initially come to mind, breaking their expectations. Then instead of telling them the answer, you start into the text of Scripture. Statistics are helpful here. You might ask, “Why do only 3 percent of young adults have a ‘favorable view’ of Christians in our culture?” or “Why do so many true Christians feel overwhelmed and burned out?” or “Why do so many Christians find it difficult to develop a daily time with God?” A “knowledge gap” creates tension in the listener, because they can’t help but start thinking about the answer. Karia writes, “The human mind has no choice but to start thinking about potential answers to a question.”[2]

Outline the direction you will take. You might ask several questions such as “What? Why? How?” to open up your talk: “We’re going to answer three questions tonight: What is servant leadership? Why should we adopt it? And how do we move toward it?”

Keeping your listeners’ attention

As you teach, you’re fighting to keep the attention of your audience. Picture your audience as being on a conveyor belt that will move them off of a cliff in 10 minutes. If you don’t do something quick (every 5-10 minutes or so), they will fall off of the cliff, and you’ll never be able to bring them back! Analogies, discussion, humor, and storytelling grab the listener’s attention effectively. In addition, consider these strategies:

Tease before you reveal. Think of teaser titles for articles on Facebook: “He came home with a loaded gun… You’ll never believe what he did next!!” or “Here are 15 of the funniest videos this year… Number 7 had me rolling on the ground!” Karia writes, “The tantalizing teaser primes your audience to listen. If you want your audience to become excited and curious about what you have to say, tease them first before you tell them!”[3] Ask questions of your passage, and then continue reading to find the answers. You might say, “What do you think is going to happen to Saul?” or “How do you think you would respond if you were in Jesus’ shoes here?” As you continue reading, this gets your listener to tune in for the rest of the story.

Use statistics. Make sure that your sources are reliable. Also try to make your statistic relatable. Instead of saying, “800,000 people died in four months,” you might say, “300 people died every hour for four months… That means that every hour, the amount of people in this room were being killed.” Instead of saying, “1 out of 2 people struggle with a pornography habit,” you might say, “Look to the person to your left and right… one of them struggles with this issue.”

Appeal to reliable authorities. When we cite academics or authorities on a topic, it’s better to use a shorter quote (though be sure to faithfully quote the person in context). Quote authorities when it is particularly pithy, insightful, or adds to the credibility of your argument. When using research to support your case, it’s often interesting to show the surprise of the results, and then ask, “What happened?” This gets the listener to try to figure out the solution before you give it to them.

Using alliteration, acronyms, or rhymes. All three of these memory devices can be extremely corny if we’re not careful. Yet these are helpful for equipping and raw memorization. These work better for a classroom setting to help people to become equipped, though sometimes appropriate for evangelistic teachings.

Using PowerPoint. PowerPoint can really help your talk if you’re teaching to a big group. Some would argue that too much PowerPoint can be a distraction from connecting with your speaker. To use it well, consider these principles:

Use images with your text. Karia writes, “If you will be using a PowerPoint presentation, avoid filling your slides with boring, dry text—instead, fill your slides with large, visually stunning images that arouse strong emotions in your audience… According to research, three days after a presentation, most people only remember 10% of what they heard. However, if you add a picture, recall shoots up to 65%.”[4]

Keep your notes limited. Karia writes, “As speech coach Craig Valentine puts it, ‘If you and your PowerPoint are saying the same exact thing, one of you is not needed.’”[5]

Use big fonts. Never go below 36-40 font. You need to be able to read the text from the back of the room.

Ask for help. Have an experienced teacher go through your PowerPoint with you. Consider using this slide show for ideas on using PowerPoint effectively.

Conclusion: Wrapping up your teaching

When you finish your discussion or lecture, it’s necessary to tie everything together. Karia writes, “Studies show that when presenters use the words, ‘in conclusion,’ people become more alert.”[6] To keep your ending interesting, you might use the expression, “In conclusion…” or “In a nutshell…” or “Let me say this before ending…” or “Before I end tonight, let me leave you with one final point.” This grabs the attention of your listener to make one final call.

Application: Making your call

Without action, biblical teaching hasn’t truly taken effect (Jas. 1:22-25). The goal of our teaching should always be practical, leading people to love God and others in a deeper and richer way (1 Tim. 1:5).

Give ONE call for action. When we build a fire, we take our time before striking our first match. We take our time tearing up paper, adding kindling, breaking sticks, and stacking the logs. If you know what you’re doing, you only need to light one match to get your fire started. The same is true with making your call in teaching. You don’t want to berate your listener with several calls throughout the teaching. This is like lighting several matches and tossing them at a pile of logs. Instead you spend most of your time confronting false belief systems, worldviews, and consequences of trusting or rejecting God. Then you take your one shot to call people to take action. Karia writes, “Don’t paralyze your audience by giving them too many choices. Include only one clear and compelling call to action.”[7]

Give a HOPEFUL call for action. Karia writes, “If you’ve presented a problem that needs to be conquered, you need to give your audience hope that it is possible to conquer it. End your speech on an uplifting note and leave your audience feeling empowered.”[8]

Give a REALISTIC call for action. Convince them about the idea, but then call them to a simple action. If the call is too lofty, cynicism sets in. If it is too easy, they don’t feel inspired. Shoot for a call that is realistic only with God’s help; otherwise, you are preaching moralism—not Christianity.

Ask RHETORICAL QUESTIONS to call for action. Some of the best teachings end with questions, rather than direct calls to change. Rhetorical questions allow people to come to their own conclusions, rather than being manipulated by the speaker. For instance, you might ask, “How many more years need to be wasted before you decide to get your prayer life together?” or “What will happen if our church loses _________?” or “What sort of person do you want be?” or “Do you want to continue to live under law or under grace?” Karia writes, “Since it’s the audience members who come to that conclusion, they are more likely to buy into the argument than if they had that conclusion thrust on them.”[9] Of course, Jesus asked no less than 150 questions in the New Testament, showing that he liked this approach in teaching others.

[1] Karia, Akash. How to Deliver a Great TED Talk. 2013. 145.

[2] Karia, Akash. How to Deliver a Great TED Talk. 2013. 145.

[3] Karia, Akash. How to Deliver a Great TED Talk. 2013. 146.

[4] Karia, Akash. How to Deliver a Great TED Talk. 2013. 137.

[5] Karia, Akash. How to Deliver a Great TED Talk. 2013. 139.

[6] Karia, Akash. How to Deliver a Great TED Talk. 2013. 69.

[7] Karia, Akash. How to Deliver a Great TED Talk. 2013. 73.

[8] Karia, Akash. How to Deliver a Great TED Talk. 2013. 71.

[9] Karia, Akash. How to Deliver a Great TED Talk. 2013. 158.