The Key to Engaging Messages: Purposeful Subtraction

I’ve always been fascinated with sculptors. These artists take a block of raw material and remove it in such a way that it becomes a masterpiece remembered for ages.

Think about it. David was a block of marble before Michelangelo removed most of it.

The masterpiece wasn’t an art of complication, but an art of simplification. The beauty wasn’t in addition but in purposeful subtraction.

It’s taken me a long time to learn this, but the same is true with preparing messages (sermons, if you prefer that term)—simple is better than complex, purposeful subtraction is better than addition.

With that said, the hardest thing about crafting messages (sermons) is cutting away all the good content you’ve researched and developed so that only the best content (the content most helpful to communicating your main idea) remains.

It’s hard to cut away the non-essentials because you’ve worked hard to discover those truths, principles, illustrations, and applications.

But it’s critical.


Because when it comes to communicating anything, less is usually more.

Take going to the grocery store for example. When my wife needs me to pick something up on the way home, that’s no problem—I can remember one thing. If there are two items, I can usually keep them straight. If the list becomes three, I have to repeat it to myself over and over to keep it memorized. If there are four or more things, she knows to text me a list.

It’s the same with anything we teach. If we want people to remember what we say, what we say can’t be long and complicated.

That’s why we cut things away from our messages. 

Short, simple, and easy to remember makes life-change more probable. We don’t connect to long and complicated, we connect to concise.

This idea was cemented into my mind when I read Andy Stanley and Lane Jones’ Communicating for a Change earlier this year (2018). Matter of fact, I wanted to so fully understand this concept that I read the book completely three times in a row. (Yes, I actually did that.)

If people connect to concise messages, we need to purposefully subtract until we get to the essential truth God would have us communicate to His people. There is a powerful message God wants us to speak inside of all the research and studying we’ve done. Our job is to chisel away all the excess until we there’s nothing left but the one thing that is most essential.

The photo of Michelangelo’s David was used with permission (credit: Jörg Bittner Unna).

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