Tag Archives: next sentence

So what? The next question.

Rod Hart made my life miserable.

Not maliciously, mind you. But very intentionally. Because his frequent question was, “so what?”

Not the way a teenager asks that question when you beging to explain why something needs to be done. Not the way a person on the edge of depression asks that question, frequently followed with “who cares?”

No, Rod asked that question because it mattered.

And it made me miserable for years.

Rod was on my doctoral committee. He was (and still is) on the faculty at The University of Texas at Austin. He was one of three rhetoric profs. I took several courses with him. I knew that for any major research project, after you explained what you were doing, the questions you were exploring, the research design, the theoretical background, after you explained all of that, his question would be, “So what?” It’s a nice design. So what? It’s technically competent. So what? You have a firm grasp of the literature. So what?

Again, he wasn’t merely being cranky. For Rod, there were no self-evident truths when it came to inquiry.

Once you have your answer, said Rod, what difference does that answer make to anyone other than research designers and you?

And so, when I struggled for months with finding a research question, when I spent a couple years writing a proposal and another couple years writing my 431 page book (without the bibliography), I knew that I was going to have to answer “so what?”

And I did. And it was worth it. And it is changing your life.

Because you are reading this.

In 1989, I wrote “on the basis of this work I find my distrust of systems growing ever larger and my belief that the most effective form of religious persuasion is telling the story strengthened.”

And so, that’s what I do.

Think about your current project. If Rod showed up and said, “so what?” what would you answer?


This is another occasional entry in the next sentence series. Follow that link for the previous sentence.


The next piece

You are in the middle of a presentation. You have the audience leaning in. They are tweeting every word. They are writing their own posts in their heads with the wonderful material you are giving them. They are, you are, fully engaged.

Suddenly, a costumed gorilla runs into the room, screams, and runs out.

Everyone sees. Everyone is startled, and then laughs.

Everyone is distracted. People are still tweeting, but now they are talking about what just happened more than about whatever you were saying.

Unless you are one of the people known for having costumed gorillas running through, this is a silly thing to do.

And there probably should only be one of those people.

At any given moment of intentional discourse, any given time where you are putting words and experiences together for a purpose, you have a bag full of pieces. And you have several bags for other games, for other purposes. The temptation, often, is to go for the big effect, for the huge memorable experience, for the huge E, for the screaming gorilla.

Fight that temptation.

You are in a relationship with an audience, you are trying to make the next move, to give others something to build on, to build with. You are trying to take what they have done and thought, add to it in a meaningful way, and give them a chance.

Or you are building a billboard, helping people know what goes on inside as they drive by outside. you want them to stay safe, to catch a glimpse, to have a really clear bit of understanding.

As fun as it is to be remembered for your effects, what would be even cooler would be to be remembered for the thoughtfully built relationships, the way that you wove value into the lives of the people that you knew, the way that you played the next piece, whether on a board or a sign, with respect and awareness of long-term effectiveness.

The gorilla guy is remembered. And copied. And becomes his own parody. The guy who plays the really big E on the gameboard is amusing. Once. But the person who thinks well about the next piece?

She changes the world.


This is another occasional entry the next sentence series. Follow that link for the previous sentence.

8 ways to write the next sentence – TNS part 5

This is the last in a series of posts about “the next sentence.”

I’ve been talking about the importance of being intentional about the next sentence, whether that is the sentence after the compelling story in a speech, or the sentence after a powerful video in a sermon, or the mailing that is the followup after a major event. Call it the next step, the next party, the call to action. Call it whatever you want.

Just don’t forget it.

Here are 8 ways to write the next sentence. Of course, some of these relate to sentences, others to events. But deal with it. If you are reading this blog you are incredibly gifted at filling in gaps and reading between the lines and making sense of inferences.

I know you.

1. Write a clear outcome for your presentation. In my life as a speech teacher, I would make students write a measurable outcome: “When I have finished speaking, my audience will be able to ____.” I don’t do that anymore. Unless I want to make sure I’m actually effective.

2. Practice the story you are telling. Ever start telling a story and then wonder what your point was? Your audience was wondering, too. So take some time and tell the story out loud. Unless, of course, the point doesn’t matter.

3. Stop and look at the audience, even before the event. When we are speaking, when we are planning events, we are working with real people, people with short attention spans and learning styles not our own and bladders and broken hearts and, well, lives. I get consumed with my presentation and planning and cool graphics and neat events. However, I need to stop and look at the people who will be in the room. When I do, I often change and simplify and clarify. Of course, maybe that’s just me.

4. Create a checklist. I talked in the second post about remembering everything but an attendance list which would allow followup for an event. If we had assembled a checklist, one of us would have remembered. I am horrible at lists. All the more reason. (“cool story. check. next sentence. check.”)

5. Pray. This may not apply to you. If not, jump to number 6. I have this belief that God actually knows people inside and out. So when I’m trying to figure out the next sentence, I occasionally ask what to say. And sometimes,  I am told. And sometimes, I even have to erase something.

6. Wait. So you told an incredibly moving, incredibly appropriate, incredibly inspiring story. You can tell that it moved people, mostly because you have tears in your own eyes. So wait for a bit. Before you say that next sentence, wait. Let people think and feel for a bit. Just wait. (You want proof? Think of a really moving episode of Extreme Makeover. Lives changed, people helped. You want to sit and think about whether you are doing the same. And immediately you hear “stay tuned for Desperate Housewives.” Suddenly you realize that the network isn’t about moving your heart.

Don’t be like the network.

7. Pretend. Pretend for a moment that you actually know what you are doing. Because you probably do. I was talking with someone today about the imposter syndrome. This is best illustrated by that fear in teachers that someday while we are teaching, someone will stand up and say, “you made that up!” and we will say, “You are right. Finally, someone saw the truth about me.” It is possible however, that you do know what you are doing and if you quit thinking about your insecurity you can think about helping people change the world.

Because that’s what you are about, right?

8. Pilot. Experiment. Tell your stories to friends before the event. Have a few people for dinner before you have 1,000 people at a banquet. Occasionally have your spouse or friend read a post before you hit publish. The thing that seemed really cool inside your head may not be.


So that’s it. A digital workshop on the next sentence. This will be an ebook soon. I’ll let you know.

For now, you can follow these links to the first four segments.

Part One: The next sentence

Part Two: How I messed up

Part Three: Teaching as a performance

Part four: Afraid of what comes next

And let me know if this helped.


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afraid of what comes next – TNS part 4

You’ve told the perfect story about Helen. You’ve told it perfectly. The audience members, whether 1 person or 1500 people, are transfixed. There are tears in some eyes. Heads are nodding in agreement or identification. No one, it seems, is sleeping, though you are 40 minutes into this presentation 90 minutes after lunch or 30 minutes before.

So what do you say next? What is the next sentence, the sentence that follows?

That’s what this series of posts is about. Last week I suggested that one reason that we aren’t able to find that next sentence is because we are performing rather than teaching, that our focus is on the entertaining rather than helping people take the next step.

“I’m afraid to say that.”

Another reason we aren’t able to find the next sentence is fear. We are afraid of success, afraid of failure. We are afraid to be measured by what we are asking for. We are afraid to confront. We are afraid that we might have to do this again. We are afraid that we will be meddling.

I taught public speaking for several years. One day, a student gave a persuasive speech about becoming an organ donor. She talked about the value of organ donation, about the lives that are saved. She talked about the value of deciding ahead of time, so that your family knows what you want. She talked about the ease of signing up.

It was a wonderful persuasive speech.

Until the end.

“In your hand you have a form. All you need to do is sign it. I’m thinking about taking this step. You should to.”

All the arguments, all the reasons, all the simplicity…but she hadn’t persuaded herself. Why should we sign up if she hasn’t?

If she had acknowledged her own fear, her own uncertainty, I would have been sympathetic. But she had spoken with confidence up to that point.

That’s how fear can mess with our ability to say the next sentence, to call for the change or the choice that we know should follow. We are afraid that we might be held accountable for not living up to what we are asking. We are afraid that if our event is too successful we might have to plan more. We are afraid that if we ask for a clear action on the part of the audience…and no one responds…we’ll be regarded as a failure.

So we hedge. We leave lots of options. We say “think about this.” We focus on the great attendance at the banquet as the measure of success rather than the giving in response to the appeal. We say, “many people like Helen could be affected” rather than simply saying, “I could die, too. So could you.”

People in sales deal with failure every day, if failure is someone telling you “no.” But there are more people speaking than people in sales. There are more people planning events than professionals. There are many of us who are responsible to teach, to preach, to plan events, to bring about change. And many of us aren’t nearly as effective as we would like to be because we are afraid to say the next sentence, the one that will challenge people deeply.

Acknowledging the truth

The other evening I was reminded of a time that I wasn’t afraid.

A man who sometimes attended our church had died. The hospice chaplain was doing the funeral. I was asked to talk a bit about Neal.

He was an interesting and odd person. He had left his family more than once. He was incredibly needy as a person. He had been living in a motel room for 7 years before moving to a nursing home and then, finally, to hospice care.

His grown children came to the funeral, but with a huge amount of (understandable) anger.

And after the welcome and the prayer and a song and some readings from the Bible by the chaplain, I got up to speak.

So what’s the next sentence? The sentence after “hello”?

“Neal wasn’t perfect. You all know that. He disappointed you.”

Suddenly, the kids were paying attention to a pastor who wasn’t going to turn their biological father into a perfect man. They were able to let go of a bit of their anger now that they knew that someone understood it.

I was almost afraid to say that sentence, almost afraid to say the thing that allowed a conversation to begin.


Next, we’re going to look at how to help make sure that the next sentence actually comes next. But while I think about what to say, it’s your turn.

When has fear kept you from following up with what you knew needed to be the next sentence?


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Teaching as a performance – TNS part 3

I’m involved with people trying to make a difference, people trying to help people grow.

I watch people teach lessons, tell stories, give sermons and speeches. I help people plan events, whether church services or training seminars or concerts. I spend time talking in small groups or individually with people who are wanting to understand how to sense of stuff, whether computers or relationships or life or God.

You do too.

We know that it’s important to consider the next sentence, the sentence after the great illustration, the followup after the great event. The last two posts have been about the idea of the next sentence. I talked about where the idea came from and then told you about a recent instance of forgetting the idea.

The next two posts in this series are going to talk about why we neglect to plan the next sentence, the next step.

Reasons we forget: Teaching as a performance

There is always a performing component to teaching. There is something about a group that sparks something. But if we look at teaching as a performance, we are in trouble.

When you are giving a performance, you are playing a role. You turn it on, you turn it off. You memorize the lines without thinking about them. They may not even be your lines. And the measure of a performance is, did I make them laugh or cry? Did I entertain them? Was it good? Was I good?

But the measure of teaching is, the measure of discipling is…what can they do?

There are times for performances. There are times for drama in teaching. But unless you are an artist, only on the way to something.

Where are you after you speak?

That’s one way to tell if you are giving a performance or teaching. After a performance you wait for the applause and go backstage. After a lesson, you are looking into eyes, providing additional explanation. It’s a conversation. It’s clarification. It’s involvement in lives. It’s…it’s….it’s….not just another speech.

Where are the camels?

I’ll tell you a secret about church. Many people only come to the building twice a year: Christmas and Easter. (If there’s a funeral or a wedding or a christening, those are exceptions). The people with that schedule have their reasons. The people who run church often think, “We need to plan big events for those two times. It will be impressive and chreasters will want to come back.” (Yes, that’s what we call you. I’m sorry. I didn’t make it up.)

The problem with that idea is simple: no one has camels on the Sunday after Christmas.

If the goal of gathering from Sunday to Sunday (and in between) is growth, then to have a huge pageant to entertain means that people are entertained, and then incredibly disappointed when there isn’t something entertaining the next week. So people come back the next time there is something entertaining, for the next pageant.

(Truth in advertising time. A couple years ago, after having written and then watched a Christmas drama based on a Cubs fan entitled, of course, “maybe next year”, I walked out of the church building and said to my boss, “time to start working on Easter.” He made me shut up.)

If you want people to grow in understanding, then the next step isn’t the next pageant, it’s a conversation that says, “here’s how to live between the emotional highs.”

“But what do you want me to do?”

So how do you avoid turning lessons and events and stories into performances (if you want more from them)? Next week, we’ll look at several ways to be effective with writing the next sentence. But I have to tell you something now, right? Because otherwise this post is just a performance.

Always give people something to do. Now. Right away. And then one to do in a day. And then one to do in a week. And then for a lifetime. Sound like too much? Chris Brogan talks about giving people Five takeaways in every presentation (and he comes close).

Some people need something right now. Some people need something for a lifetime. Speak to both of those groups.

So what are the takeaways from this? You write them.


Coming up next in this series, why fear keeps us from the next sentence?


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the next sentence – part two

We had a newcomer lunch. We wanted to have something for people who have started coming to church services here within the last year. It’s the first event like that we’ve had around here in at least 13 years.

It seemed like it would make sense to help people get connected, to find out more about who we are and what we believe.

We announced it out loud. We put it in our publications. We sent invitations to everyone we knew of that fit in that demographic.

We had between 20 and 30 people signed up to come. We invited a bunch of staff and a couple elders and the fellowship committee. We had 75 people. We had a great time.

And then I started thinking about the next sentence. I realized I needed to take a next step with that event. So I created a postcard to send to them with four questions.

Thanks for coming to the Newcomer Lunch. 
Those of us who are oldtimers enjoyed it. We hope you did, too.
Because this was the first time we’ve done this,
we would appreciate your help. Would you answer
these questions and drop this card in the offering plate
the next time you come to church? (or hand it to
a staff member or mail it in or attach it to a homing pigeon) 
Pastor Jon Swanson
Our goal was to help you get a clearer picture of Grabill Missionary Church.
1. Given that goal, what was the most helpful part of the hour?

2. Given that goal, what one thing could we do that would make Newcomer Lunches more effective?

3. What were you expecting that we didn’t do?

4. Should we keep doing this?  Yes No
Name (optional)

It was a simple card, inviting another level of involvement.

And then we started looking for addresses. And we realized that we didn’t have a list of the people who showed up. And we didn’t have the list of people who had said they were coming. And we didn’t remember to have people sign a sheet when they filled out a name tag.

We had a great event, we had people wanting to do it again, but we had no way to follow up.

Since then, we’ve been able to build a list of the newcomers. Our people did a wonderful job of mingling and talking and learning names and building connections. And we have already gotten back several cards, with very positive comments.

The lesson? Think about what comes after the thing that you are doing now. After this story, what’s the moral? After this presentation, what’s the followup? After this lesson, what’s the application?

So what’s your story about missing out on the next sentence?


Coming up next in this series, what keeps us from thinking about the next sentence?


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The next sentence – part one

We were planning a church service, several of us. We met every week, talking through how the songs and the drama and the readings could connect to the sermon and to the congregation. We looked at a video, a clip to drop into the sermon.  The video was really cool, really interesting, really entertaining. It seemed to be great to include.

And then Steve, the preacher, asked, “what’s the next sentence?”


“After that video plays, what is the next sentence, the sentence that makes it make sense?”

A great question for the two of us in particular. He is a wonderful communicator. I am a spin master.  And as we thought it through, we realized that there was no way we could move people from the video to the text. There was no connection. If the video stayed, the whole sermon would have to be changed…..including the topic.

By itself, the video was great. There were a number of settings in which it would work. But that sermon on that Sunday for that audience was not the place. It would destroy what was being built.

I wrote those three words, “the next sentence” on a scrap of paper and kept them above my desk. I realized that for every illustration, for every event, for every lesson, for everything that I know captures attention, I need to think about what comes next.

How will I follow that, how can I take that attention, that emotion, that readiness to learn on the part of the audience, and help them learn? Or will I take the mood, the readiness, the anticipation and ruin it with “Wasn’t that a great story? I knew you’d like it. Anyway, back to what we were talking about.”

For the next few posts, I’m going to talk about the next sentence.

Next up? How we completely forgot how to welcome some interested newcomers to our church.


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