The Secret Ingredient to Engaging Your Audience

“Communicating an idea juxtaposed with its polar opposite creates energy. Moving back and forth between the contradictory poles encourages full engagement from the audience.” —Nancy Duarte

Hot Dog and Chopsticks

You step back from your creative work and, no matter how hard you rationalize its appeal, you know in your heart something is missing. The ingredient that takes it from dull to fascinating.

Most of us know the secret ingredient already. Then why don’t we use it? I’ll address reasons why we overlook the secret ingredient after I give you some examples of how it’s been employed.

Secret Ingredient: CONTRAST.

Musical Instrument Keyboard KeysExample 1: My favorite rhythm activity with preschoolers is freeze dance. In Bible Study Fellowship and Sunday school, we danced to music pieces on the small keyboard I carried. Then I’d punch the stop button. The children froze arms, legs, and face expressions. I tried to catch them in a stumbling stop or moving when silence dropped. They enjoyed the dancing, the anticipation, and avoiding getting caught.

The freeze dance provides these contrasts:

  • freely moving bodies vs. rigid frozen bodies
  • doing our own thing vs. obeying the rule to stop
  • anticipation vs. fun result

When we solely put on music and let them dance with scarves, the children didn’t stay engaged very long. Unless they used their scarves as whips (creating their own contrast).

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Image courtesy of Suat Eman at

Example 2: If you sat in a waiting room with a blue wall in front of you, how long would you stare at the wall with interest? Now, say the wall was white with a foot-by-foot blue square painted on it. Would your eye wander to that blue square now and then? Would you wonder why someone painted a blue square on the white wall? Might you imagine what you would have put on the wall instead of the blue square? Or what you’d add to the blue square?

The contrast of blue and white, big and small, and the why and why not of the blue square creates more interest than a solid blue wall. That’s why artists use light and dark, shadows and highlights.

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Image courtesy of adamr at
Image courtesy of adamr at

Example 3: Would you sit through a movie or play where the actors constantly shouted? Or issued nonstop dramatic emotion—always whining or always blubbering or always laughing? Actors and storytellers know sprinkling subtle and dramatic emotions, shouts and whispers, and movement and stillness engages their audiences.

??????????????????????????Too much of anything gets old and audiences lose interest.

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Example 4: And for me, the greatest contrast of all: Creator and created. If the Bible were only about humans and their sinful natures and fleeting brief lives on earth, our future would be hopeless. But the Bible reveals the nature of the almighty Creator who sent His Son to earth to save us from our sins, give us eternal life in His kingdom, and make us whole.

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Why doesn’t a writer, an artist, or presenter use contrasts? Here’s reasons that came to my mind:

  • He does, but uses less than polar contrasts. The contrasts fall short of appearing different to the audience. The actor reduces his screams to shouts.
  • He fails to put the contrasts he sees in his mind into his work. This is a common problem of novice writers. They imagine a scene and its emotions but fall short of transferring what they’ve created in their minds to the page.
  • He uses an experience in his personal life. His emotional struggles with the experience convince him to avoid one side of the contrast. Contrasting costs too much pain.
  • He thinks the one element that intrigues him is sufficient to attract his audience. He forgets his passion must be related to the audience. Contrasting that element to its opposite helps the audience see his viewpoint.

Can you share an example of how you’ve contrasted elements in your creative work?

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2 Ways You Know Your Activity Is a Success

“Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” —Albert Einstein


What Is Success?

Does success have to mean bigger, better, or more? Is it always about the numbers? Followers in social media? Book sales for authors? Class standard-of-learning scores for teachers? All these successes are good and can make things happen, but they often inflict struggles, worries, and hectic living.Keeping Score for the Team

Could we be satisfied with low-stress, joy-producing successes? Could we allow success to be something we don’t expect?

On the series, Castle, mystery novelist Richard Castle asks Detective Kate Beckett, “Do you think we actually saved the world?” (They did.) Kate answers, “I think that we saved a little girl’s life, and that’s enough for me.”

If we think (or pray) about why we’re doing an activity, decide it’s the right thing to do, and prepare for it the best we can, any success associated with it can be enough.

2 Ways You Know Your Activity Is a Success

1. At least one person makes a mental connection from your activity’s message that changes their understanding for the better.

I presented a Christmas Bible lesson for 12 young male prisoners in a stainless-steel lunchroom where the stools were bolted to the table. As I told Jesus’ birth story, I moved the key 12-inch figures of a nativity set to the forefront in little vignettes. The cadets listened intently.

photoThen we broke into discussion groups. The young men discussed what they’d do if they were in Joseph’s situation. When Joseph learned Mary was pregnant, he planned to quietly break his marriage pledge to her. Joseph wanted to avoid exposing Mary to public disgrace. After the angel, Gabriel, spoke to Joseph, Joseph obeyed God’s commands. He married Mary, a virgin, and abstained from intimate relations with her until the world’s Savior was born.

One cadet seemed confused. I answered a couple of his questions. He became reflective while I moved the others on to another lively activity. During the chaos, he approached me and touched my arm. Just the two of us were in a little vignette of our own with the buzz of the other cadets fading into the background around us. His eyes sought mine, and he asked in a soft voice, “Was Jesus born on Christmas?” I joyfully told this young man, who was on the verge of putting Christ into Christmas, an encouraging yes.

2. At least one person considers that what you do makes them a better person, employee, or friend.

As a health actuary, I evaluated financial risk for my employer. The Actuarial Division was challenged to acquire the information needed from the hospital negotiators to produce better company financial forecasts. The negotiators were reluctant to share confidential data. They claimed they didn’t have time to put together numbers for us.

I had an idea how we could help the negotiators and get the information we needed for our forecasts. My boss gave me the go ahead.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

My team delivered good hospital data to the negotiators so they could produce better proposals. Leary at first, the negotiators soon depended on our data. My team then built interactive spreadsheets the negotiators could enter hospital rates into and quickly produce contract scenarios. They in turn trusted us with their confidential information, sought us for analysis, and on occasion, invited us on negotiations.

Actuaries were able to create good assumptions for company financial forecasts.

When I announced my retirement, one negotiator cried out, “NO!” He thought what I did made him a better negotiator.

What results have you considered successes?


5 Reasons I Don’t Care I Lost Money Self-publishing

“Dare to be naïve.” —Richard Buckminster Fuller 

ID-10047143Two Self-published Books

In 1999 before I signed with an agent, I had twelve contemporary Christian short story ideas that came to me like shooting stars from heaven as I studied the Bible. I wrote the stories to explain to myself difficult teachings.

photoAfter giving dramatic readings of the stories, listeners encouraged me to publish them. I did, relying on The Self-publishing Manual by Dan Poynter and The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing by Tom and Marilyn Ross. I completed more than 35 steps in the publishing process.

At my marketing expertise level, 700 copies would’ve been sufficient, but I contracted 3,000 books printed through my company, Holy Ghost Writers Publishing. In 2000, I did it all again with 15 more stories and 3,300 books printed. Talk about naïve.

But over time, the stories, the extra books, and the publishing process have become a boon.

5 Reasons Self-publishing Pearls in the Muddle and Crumbled, Tumbled, Humbled—Saved Became a Godsend.

Reason 1. Self-publishing showed me how to find talented people-resources in my own backyard.

Image courtesy of anankkml at
Image courtesy of anankkml at

In the self-publishing process, a qualified Christian co-worker edited my books. My nephew created the illustrations. A family friend, a graphics designer, designed the book covers. Friends and family members contributed funds. Friends organized my first public dramatic readings. All shared my vision. Many would’ve worked without compensation if I’d let them.

Self-publishing prepared me for finding gifted people for my later dream project: creating a church library.

Reason 2.  Self-publishing taught me how to research an unfamiliar industry and hire business providers.

In the self-publishing process, I contacted Advance Book Information to list my books in Books in Print. I obtained copyrights, Cataloging In Publication information for the title page, ISBN numbers, and barcodes. I requested quotes from book printers. I scheduled bookstores for signings.

These tasks provided me experience for working with many business providers in building our dream house.

Reason 3. Self-publishing provided a basis for honing my public speaking skills.

MP900289528I reaped public speaking experience from my corporate job, but my dramatic readings expanded my skills. I presented to women’s groups in churches, at women’s retreats, at community centers, from church pulpits, and to youth groups. I learned the worth of incorporating spin-off ideas by developing a workshop based on two of my stories about prayer and offering participants my books.

Today, this experience helps me build my platform as a writer. My presentations and workshops on the writing craft and industry allow me to give back to other writers what I’ve received.

Reason 4. Self-publishing demonstrated I had the determination to be an author and speaker.

When I pitched my first novel to my agent-to-be, my self-published books showed her my commitment. They also emboldened me to get two stories published in an online magazine.

I include my self-publishing efforts in book proposals to publishers to show my perseverance.

Reason 5. Self-publishing provided an avenue to help others.

I’m aware of one person the stories led to Christ. People have used the books for devotionals and Bible studies. Many of those extra printed books are on bookshelves of new Christian libraries in English-speaking third-world countries through donations to a library ministry.

Image courtesy of anekoho at
Image courtesy of anekoho at

Over my 8-year involvement in a prison ministry, I provided the books to young male prisoners, who passed them on to fellow inmates.

The books provide me a meaningful gift I can give new friends, associates, and acquaintances. A fun medium for witnessing my faith.

What “faux pas” has turned into a bonanza for you?