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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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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6 Tips to Control Your Creativity from Taking Over Your Life

“Order and creativity are complementary.”—Lewis Mumford

Image courtesy of ponsulak at
Image courtesy of ponsulak at

Hello. My name is Zoe. I’m a creativity junky. If you’re like me, your creative musings and your compulsive desire to create threaten your sleep, your family and spiritual living, your house cleaning, and your other responsibilities.

Know that once a creativity junky, always a creativity junky. But try theses 6 tips that have helped me know when to free my imagination to fly and when to rein it in.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

1. Treat your writing, painting, and presentation preparations like an outside-the-home job. Since I retired, I’m a full-time writer. On weekdays, I rise at 5 AM and start my day in Bible study and intercessory prayer, which prepares me for a good day. Around 9 AM after breakfast with my husband and some cleanup, I climb the steps to my office. I take care of non-creative tasks, then unleash my creativity to work on stories, blogs, and ministries. Ahhh.

My writing day formally ends at 6 PM. But remember, I’m a creativity junky, so I need more help than a defined time to create.

Pad of Paper & Pen2. Carry with you something to write on at all times. Creative ideas pop into my head while I’m praying, eating, working around the house, and even while I’m dreaming. Of course, I want to pursue the idea NOW. I can often control that urge by writing the idea down on my notebook or iPad. In effect, it’s scheduled, and I can relax.

I’d recommend having only a desktop computer so it isn’t convenient to whip out your MacBook Air and pursue a fascinating idea. But that’s too extreme. After all, some of the impulsive behavior is the nature of an artistic, right?

Image courtesy of photostock at
Image courtesy of photostock at

3. Avoid activities at bedtime that tempt your creativity. I’m learning it’s dangerous to work on a scene or blog sitting in bed. When the lights go out, I know I’ll rework the content in my mind for hours. So to protect my sleep and keep the ideas from streaming, I read a little of a book that’s interesting but not a page-turner. Or I play a boring solitaire game on my iPad.

Watering flowers4. Plan moments throughout your day to re-ground you in non-creative living. For me, God is my guide, my counselor, and my Lord. Sometimes, I get wrapped up in my creative work and forget that. So I schedule another few moments with the Lord in a devotional after lunch.

Ahead of time, I plan home tasks, preferably with exercise, to be accomplished when I take breaks.

Canoeing5. Train a habit of keeping certain days for spending time with family and doing things other than creative work. This tip is the most difficult for me. First, it’s hard to shut down the creative frenzy for long periods. And second, when life responsibilities take away an afternoon or day from my creative workweek, I need to make up the time. However, I’m working on the habit of taking off Wednesday afternoons and weekends. BUT, if my husband watches sports on TV, out comes my MacBook Air.

pond6. Do creative activities with others. My husband and I have worked together to design a house, create a garden pond, and plan creative activities for Sunday school children. My creative nature loves and feeds on such times with my husband. And, I enjoy playing make-believe with my grandchildren.


What has worked for you to prevent your creative work from taking over your life?

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Increase Your Value: Be Able to Lead Activities on the Spur of the Moment

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


We arrive ready to participate, but the leader doesn’t show up. Although we’re familiar with the activity, we seek someone more qualified to fill in for the leader. Unfortunately, that someone is pointing at us!

You can become the person of value others trust to take over in a pinch.

At a recent writers’ conference, a popular author couldn’t attend. The conference coordinator announced that another author/editor would lead her workshop. I’d awaited the workshop and couldn’t imagine anyone else worthy to teach her material. I considered joining another workshop. I’m glad I didn’t. Dina Sleiman presented the author’s material so well I not only learned much, but I had a new respect for Dina’s expertise.

3 Steps to Become the Person Qualified to Lead Activities at the Last Minute

Step 1. Review Your Involvements.

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Based on our jobs or interests, most of us have a set of activities we haunt with regularity. Look at the leaders in these areas. Could you lead their activities? If not, what would you need to do so?

For example, if you spend much time with outdoor groups, could you guide members in survival if some of you became separated from your leader?

Step 2. Seek training, a mentor, or an apprenticeship.

In the Step 1 example, if you reached the rank of Eagle in the Boy Scouts, you might have training in wilderness survival. If not, seeking survival training would prepare you to step in to lead outdoor lovers in staying alive.


Businesswoman Pushing Elevator Button1. Experience is a great teacher, but if you’re a writer, you don’t need to write five books to be prepared when your dream editor joins you on the elevator during a conference. You can learn how to write and share a short hook that captures the essence of your story. A prepared one-liner also arms you at social functions when people ask what your book is about. In these cases, you’re stepping in for yourself on the spur of the moment.

2. For Kick-off Sunday, all four preschool Sunday school teachers had to attend the first class to introduce themselves to the children. Four-year-olds poured into our classroom. One teacher had volunteered to teach the first class. In a panic, she arrived unprepared, saying she hadn’t received her teacher’s manual.

MP900049745After blinking in surprise, I told her it was okay. I took over and lead the whole lesson without a glitch. Yes, I had experience teaching Sunday school. But my training as a children’s leader in Bible Study Fellowship equipped me to lead any class of preschoolers. Besides intense Bible study, BSF children’s leaders had to develop a cache of finger plays, children’s hymns, and rhythm and large muscle activities. We also trained to tell age-appropriate stories.

In addition, BSF offered training in how to lead adult Bible studies at a moment’s notice.

3. My husband enjoyed membership in Toastmasters. He entered a Table Topics contests. The contest master gave him a topic and less than a minute to think about it. Then he had to give a two-minute talk. He’s prepared to take over the mike in an emergency.

MP900444098Step 3. Forbid doubts to creep in once you’re trained.

Don’t compare your skill to the absent leader’s expertise. You’re trained. Just do it with joy.

Tell us about a time you filled in for someone in a pinch.

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