Tim Keller is the bestselling author of The Reason for God and founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. We asked how he prepares his se...
How can learning about our brain’s hardwiring enable us to be more persuasive? Steve Adams explains
Jesus had a tough ask when you think about it. Join an intangible kingdom led by a man predicting his own death and claiming to be God. Yet he still persuaded people to follow him. And it wasn’t just the twelve disciples (or even the 72 who were sent out in Luke 10). Thousands gathered to hear Jesus speak and the Gospels record how “large crowds” followed him everywhere.
Jesus managed to be persuasive and communicate God’s message with power using the same Holy Spirit he gave to us. Yet it somehow seems harder today. What are we missing? Is there something in our communication in church, society and culture, which we should have clocked by now – something about how Jesus structured his communication to trigger his listeners’ brains?
That Jesus was God incarnate obviously made all the difference to his communication. But, if the persuasiveness of his preaching was only down to God’s power and presence, then Jesus needn’t have built his communication around some very specific prompts. Prompts which interacted with, spoke to and triggered the action part of his listeners’ brains. But he did.
I want to introduce you to these five brain-prompts and ask: ‘If Jesus understood and used these triggers, shouldn’t we?’ Of course, framing communication around these prompts doesn’t mean people will respond, but it does allow you to present your message in the language that the brain understands. And the way that the greatest communicator all – Jesus – modelled for us too.
What triggers you?
Your Centre Brain (or Limbic brain) – so called because it’s in the middle of your brain – is the bit that makes decisions and prompts action. But it does so at such speed and is such an intrinsic part of who you are that you rarely evaluate it. For example, what is it that triggers your Centre Brain to warm to someone? To throw money in a homeless person’s cup? Or to volunteer for the church coffee rota (or not)?
It’s perfectly normal to not think about these prompts. Not many people explore them and even fewer harness them. But they are important. Because when the right prompts are used (the ones that speak to and trigger engagement and active response), then communication becomes effective in prompting activity. It’s interesting to see how Jesus himself framed his communication around these five prompts.
1. The ‘why’ makes the ‘what’ interesting
If I tell you what I’m doing today – digging a hole in my garden – it’s unlikely to prompt deep interest in you. If I tell you that the Met Office predict an unusually long, dry period and a total hosepipe ban, and that I’m digging until I reach water, for the sake of my garden plants, then knowing ‘why’ I’m digging begins to make the ‘what’ engaging. It brings it into your space.
‘Why’ takes any issue and provides a way in which others can engage with it.
For example, what about the wedding at which the host had underordered the wine? It was getting late and guests were shocked when, apparently out of nowhere came lots of top-end vintage. True, it was served unusually – from some open water containers – but no one cared. But what if someone asked why it wasn’t in carafes or bottles but in water jars? “Because this ‘vintage’ wine was water until ten minutes ago, when that man, Jesus, turned it into wine” (John 2) would be the answer. When you start with what you’re dependent on your listener either having an interest in the subject, or being polite. Start with why and you'll get your point across much more effectively.
Let me offer a breakfast example: “Shredded Wheat is healthy” declares a TV advert. That’s what it is (and what it offers) which will interest the segment of viewers interested in healthy eating. But why should you buy that healthy cereal rather than another?
An advert on TV recently answered this question not by focusing on what the product is (Shredded Wheat is mentioned only once), but on why you need it. Because if you eat it, you’ll start “Shredding Life” – as the dad in the ad does when (having had his morning bowl of wheaty goodness) he dives, impressively, from the high board, watched by his admiring son. Why eat Shredded Wheat? Because it will enable you to grab life by the horns and own it.
Similarly, Jesus kept turning his disciples’ focus towards the why and answered the what through that lens:
What: Do not worry about your life, what you will eat…Consider the ravens: they do not sow or reap… yet God feeds them…do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink…
Why: But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well (Luke 12:22-31)
When Jesus told the Good Samaritan parable, the expert in the law knew the ‘what’ around inheriting eternal life and answered Jesus well (“Love your neighbour”). But it was still theory. Jesus used the ‘why’ to bring it into this man’s front garden and make it actionable. Jesus’ ‘why’ question – which I’ll paraphrase as ‘Why was the Samaritan a neighbour?’ (Luke 10:36) led the expert in the law to point to the Samaritan’s practical outpouring of mercy (v37). To which Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
2. You think in pictures
The second action-prompt involves pictorialising your point. Think, for a moment, about your pastor. Then about a table tennis table. And now about your best friend. Although words appear to be the currency of our age, the primary language of our brains is pictures: you just saw ‘pictures’ of your best friend, pastor and a table tennis table – rather than those things spelt out as words in our mind.
Our brain’s primary language is pictures. When information comes in as pictures, it awakens and speaks to the action brain.
Jesus pictorialised all his points. Think about your most cherished stories Jesus told. I’ll wager they’re stored in picture form in your mind: A man who sowed seed – some on good soil, some on rocky soil; a wise man who built his house on the rock; Jesus as the true vine and his Father as the gardener; Jesus standing at the door and knocking. And so on.
Pictorialising points doesn’t necessarily mean showing an actual image or photo. Think of a great novel. Your pictoral brain naturally visualises it as you read the words – so much so that there’s sometimes a disconnect when you see the film version (“That’s not how I imagined it!”). Your words, written or spoken, can create pictures. And when they do, they awaken the action brain.
Applying the Centre Brain in a sermon
- Ask yourself: what is my primary message? Then define an idea around that. You may find it helpful to use Jesus’ template. He said, “The kingdom of God is like…” Swap out your message and finish the sentence. For example: “[Your sermon subject] is like…”
- Apply your idea into a picture – something you can talk about in tangible ways and which your listeners will be able to visualise. Ideally it will relate to their world.
- Ask yourself why this matters, to these people, in this place, today? And use that as the lens through which you present the what and how.
- When you invite them to respond, ensure you use contrast: offer them two ways to respond.
- Emotional connection: You can build this connection during the sermon by being vulnerable and speaking of your own experience and engagement in the subject.
3. Turn your message into an idea
In the 1970s IBM launched personal computers, and marketed them using the products to sell the product. Ads carried images of the machines themselves, with headlines pointing to the machines: ‘Presenting the IBM of personal computers’, and later, ‘Introducing the IBM personal system 2’.
Around that time, a competitor, Apple, also began marketing personal computers. But not with the machine. They marketed the idea. In one classic Apple ad there were no pictures of the product. No mention of the computers at all. In fact, just an idea: ‘Think Different’. The advert invited people not to buy the product, but to buy the dream, to embrace the vision to think different: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the ones who see things different…we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
Today Apple is a thriving company, whereas IBM never succeeded in the PC market. That’s because Apple applied this principle of the Centre Brain – where action germinates – which deals in ideas.
“Don’t sell products, sell dreams”, Steve Jobs said. It’s a lesson he could have learned by reading Matthew 13. Here, Jesus introduces the kingdom of heaven through a variety of ideas. The kingdom of heaven is like…“a man who sowed good seed” (v24); “a mustard seed” (v31); “yeast” (v33); “treasure…in a field” (v44); a merchant seeking pearls (v45); a net catching all kinds of fish (v47); the home owner bringing out of his store both new and old treasures (v52). Notice how Jesus brings out a different idea about the kingdom in each picture.
In my work with organisations and churches, the most common barrier to growth is that they are selling their product with their product – rather than with an idea. It’s a worthwhile half-hour, looking through your church’s communications, website, sermons and outreach events and asking whether they’re selling the raw message, or the idea behind the message. Are you advertising a worship service…or an encounter with the living God? Are you inviting people to a prayer meeting…or inviting them to change the world? Or, in Steve Jobs’ words, “the product or the dream”?
4. Use contrast constantly
Here’s a fun fact. If you’re in a cycle shop thinking of buying a bike and the sales assistant offers you two to compare, you’ll actually decide faster than if she had offered just one and asked whether you want it. This is because your Centre Brain makes a decision by contrasting.
Jesus used contrast constantly to enable his message to land in the brain’s action-area. Think of these parables: the seed falling among good soil and bad soil; a tiny mustard seed becoming the largest tree; the landowner who paid the workers who laboured an hour the same wage as those working a full day; the foolish and wise builders constructing on rock and sand; the end times judgement of the sheep and the goats – and so on.
But why is contrast so important? Because the Centre Brain weighs what it’s offered. Imagine you are a church leader who wants your members to come on a church weekend away. Each person in your church congregation and youth group has a set of weighing scales and places your invitation on one side of the scales: “We’re going away together to a beautiful country location, with fantastic speakers for youth and adults. Our dream is to come to God, to meet him, dive into his word and rest in him…sign up and be part of it!”
But the brain needs something on the other end of the scales to weigh your offer against. If you offer nothing, they’ll add their own balance: “Sounds good, but work is very busy, and life seems breathless. It’ll cost some money and I’m not sure we can commit right now.”
Are you advertising a worship service…or an encounter with the living God?
But, if you are the one to offer the contrast for the other end of the scales (in picture form, of course), then you’ll be speaking to the action-area of their brain: “If you’re thinking you’re busy – too busy to make it – then it’s you this weekend is for. Because Jesus said, ‘Come to me when you’re heavy laden.’ So take his invitation seriously…”
5. Emotional connection
The human brain is built to connect. Your brain is the only organ that changes as a direct result of and in response to, the connections made. The mirror neurons in your brain are looking for connection. To do this they mirror the emotions around us. It’s the emotion you feel rising as a friend tells you their son is being bullied; the tears you feel coming as a church member passes you some money for your food this week, knowing you’re struggling financially. Connecting emotionally is essential to influence.
Jesus allowed himself to connect. He inhabited all the emotions, from anger to compassion, from zeal to sorrow, from grief to groaning and feeling weary, from joy to deep pain. All because he loved the people he was with. Imagine if he had not connected emotionally. He’d have made zero impact. Every encounter Jesus had demonstrates connection.
Learn the prompts
Jesus was probably the world’s most gifted, connected, persuasive and compelling communicator. His words, storytelling and actions made such an impact on those who first heard him that his words are still changing the world today, 2,000 years later.
If you’re a church leader wondering why some sermons are not delivering what you hope they will; an evangelist who wants to present faith in a way that connects; an employee wanting to persuade your boss; or a young person preparing for an interview, then mastering the five prompts of the Centre Brain is essential. It worked for Jesus, and it still works today.
Steve Adams works with churches and organisations on brand, story and communication. He is the author of The Centre Brain: 5 prompts to persuasive power (SPCK) and loves nothing more than camping by the sea with his wife and four children. For more information about the book visit centrebraincommunication.com