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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4 Crucial Elements That Make Your Audience Talk Up Your Creative Work

“The public as a whole is composed of various groups, whose cry to us writers is: ‘Comfort me.’ ‘Amuse me.’ ‘Touch me.’ ‘Make me dream.’ ‘Make me laugh.’ ‘Make me shudder.’ ‘Make me weep.’ ‘Make me think.’” —Guy de Maupassant


We work on a painting, presentation, novel, song, dance, play, or Bible lecture and hope our audiences will talk it up.

Our works will stay in the minds of our audiences if we recognize audiences need intangibles to imbed artistic works in their memories.

People will enjoy our works long after they’ve put down the books, turned off the iPods or left the galleries, conference rooms, or theaters if our works evoke:

  • Images
  • Emotions
  • Stories
  • Ah-Has

Why Evoke Images?

Kyle Buchanan and Dean Roller say in their e-book, How to Memorize Bible Verses, “Your memory doesn’t like rote learning and repetition, it likes to see things.”

id-100135344.jpgPeople want to visualize as they experience. Even paintings evoke images other than those on canvas. When I saw a painting of a field of sunflowers, the image of the sunflower patch I passed on my way home from work everyday in the summers came to mind.

Songs evoke images through lyrics and what went on in our lives when the songs were popular. Recently I attended My Book Therapy’s Deep Thinkers Retreat. Susan May Warren invited us to listen to parts of songs and note what images and emotions they aroused. The exercise showed the importance of creating images for our readers.

People like to recall the rich images creative works deposit in their memory banks.

Why Evoke Emotions?


At the Deep Thinkers Retreat, we learned techniques to evoke readers’ emotional responses to our characters. To make our novels memorable, we had to draw our readers into the characters’ lives. Recalling our own past emotions in similar situations helped us show our characters’ emotional reactions.

During the retreat breaks and meals, the latest episode of Downton Abbey dominated conversations. A character had died. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought, by the angry and mournful emotions voiced, some beloved actor had passed. Viewers cared.

A presenter wants his audience to care about his call to action. In the book, Resonate, Nancy Durate advocates emotional appeal in presentations along with ethical and logical appeals. She says, “Involving the audience emotionally helps them form a relationship with you and your message.”

People look for reasons to care enough to talk up creative works.

Why Evoke Stories?

 mp900405206.jpgWhen I look at a painting or a photo in a gallery, I see a snapshot. I want to know what happened and what happens next. What’s the story behind the photo of the ballerina? Was she jilted earlier? Is she planning revenge? Was she cut from the ballet? Will she give up her dream and return to her husband and five children?

Song rhythms and lyrics arouse new and past stories. Novels do the same. When I read a novel, my mind scurries ahead to finish the story with what I know so far. I’m delighted when the novel surprises me with a gotcha or replaces my expectations with something far more interesting.

People discuss creative works whose interesting scraps or snapshots turn on their live-in storytellers to fill in the gaps.

Why Evoke Ah-has?


Most people love to glean a new truth from a poignant play, a hilarious book, or a country song’s title. It’s like opening door number three and our hearts leap at the sight of the prize. Readers of mysteries delight in the sudden realization of who dunnit.

We enjoy a new insight to share at lunch. To guide our lives.

People talk up creative works that turn on their light bulbs.

What did you imagine when you first saw the picture of the ballerina?


5 Things that Spur Our Creativity

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” —Unknown

My list of things that spur our creativity is based on my experience and observations.

 MP9001827601.  Necessity

I think the necessity in today’s quote is twofold. First, if people have a need, they’ll get creative to fill it. For example, Apollo 13’s malfunctions and NASA’s creative solutions.

Second, I think many of us “need” to use our creative juices. Even without outer needs to stimulate us, we thrive on creativity. It energizes us, provides us a tool to understand life events, and gives us a means to express feelings.

For example, I learn best through application, so I practice the technique of writing internal stories to explain ideas to myself. In another post, I mentioned I created short stories to explain Biblical teachings to myself.

Woman with typewriter.2.  Suffering

A cartoon my mother posted in her art studio showed a disappointed artist appraising his painting. The caption said, “I haven’t suffered enough.”

Suffering can turn us to creativity. Creative endeavors can provide victims safe ways to deal with past abuses. Therapists have encouraged children to draw pictures after traumatic events.

I think, in general, adversity is often a catalyst to creative expression. One man wrote a novel after his divorce. He never wrote again. We writers can tell our stories of hardships through fictional characters. We might have no control over misfortunes, but we can write stories in which perpetrators receive justice or redemption. We can write healing stories in which heroes learn to forgive.

Artist Thinking3.   Environment

I think those who grow up with creative parents tend to recognize how their own imaginations can be applied. It’s what their parents modeled.

For example, I grew up observing my parents’ creative efforts in everything. The times my father helped me were when the aid involved using his creativity. He wrote a skit for my junior high talent show. He helped my third grade class make papier-mâché puppets. My parents always made our costumes. My mother drew paper dolls and their outfits for my sister and me.

I didn’t imitate my parents and pursue art. But I sought creative expression that fit my needs and personality and desire to help others.

MP9004430784.  Personality 

I’ve observed those of us devoted to creative expression are willing to spend much time honing our craft. Whatever is the main vehicle for our creative release (art, writing, drama, music, sculpture, solving problems), we seek a measure of excellence.

Personality also seems to spur how our creativity manifests itself. Some of us are curious introverts, researching to feed our imaginations. Others are extroverts infusing drama into our presentations. Some of us expressive types are idea machines for solving problems. Many of us use a mishmash of creative outlets.

5.  Creator 

42-15654076For me, the ultimate source of our creativity is God the Creator of all things. He gave us creative imaginations to heal and encourage us as well as to serve others.

Looking at the tiny veins under the tender skin of a newborn, I’m awed and inspired. God’s design to send lifeblood to every part of an infant’s body shows me how God considered every detail in creating us.

And what amazes me more is God’s statement that He made us in His image. He designed us to be creative like Him!

No matter what has ignited our imaginations, we can intentionally pursue our creativity to help others. Imagine the world if we did.

What spurs your creativity and how do you use it?

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