How To Engage Your Cerebral Cortex During Sermon Prep

In 1981, a man named Roger Sperry won an award. It wasn’t the first award this star athlete had won was one awarded for an entirely different reason. In 1981 Roger Sperry won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for something that has changed how we think about "how we think".

Sperry taught us that we have a Cerebral Cortex, divided into two major hemispheres. These two hemispheres performed an exhaustive range of intellectual tasks, called cortical skills (including: Logic, Rhythm, Lines, Color, Lists, Daydreaming, Numbers, Imagination, Word, Gestalt [seeing the whole picture]).  Sperry's research showed that the more these activities were integrated, the more each intellectual skill would enhance the performance of other intellectual areas.

The question then becomes how do you engage logic, color, lines, lists numbers, imagination and words? How do you engage your entire cerebral cortex for more vibrant brainstorming and preparation?

I’m not sure if you’re like me, but I’m not a very linear thinker when I prepare to teach. My research tends to take me down rabbit trails, and more often, into what seems like the perfect analogy to make my point (only to later realize the idea was half baked). And while that’s not necessarily bad when trying to create a full bodied message, organizing those thoughts while maintaining that creative state of mind seems to be a challenge.

That was, until I discovered the simple art of mind mapping.

Maybe you learned to mind map years ago or maybe this is a new concept to you, either way I believe mind mapping can fully engage your cortical skills and more fully engage your brain with a few simple steps.

In fact, in 2009 R. Al-Jarf did a study “Enhancing freshman students’ writing skills with a mind mapping software” and showed significant post test differences between experimental and control groups as a result of using mind-mapping software. Not only did experimental students make higher gains, they became faster at generating and organizing ideas for their writing.

Mind maps also give you just enough structure to allow your mind to focus without restricting you to the point of frustration.

So how do you get started?

1. Pick a Canvas

This could be simply a whiteboard with some colored markers or you could invest in something a little more mobile like an app.

My personal favorite is a Mac and iOS app called MindNode [link].

2. Pick your Subject

This should be the theme, the central verse or the specific topic you’re message is tackling. This is your starting point, the focal point on your map.

3. Layout your Structure

Your three main branches are the three basic elements of any message.

The Problem

This is the branch where you attach every “twig” of an idea that will help your audience understand the problem. It may include a personalized story highlighting your own experience with the subject at hand. It should also include examples of how different segments of your audience is likely experiencing the problem (see "The 1 Question You Forget To Ask Before You Preach").

The Teaching

This branch is packed with ideas, context and your bottom line. Ideas may include stories, analogies, and antidotes. Context will include the possible scriptures you might reference in your teaching. Adding them here doesn’t mean they will end up in your final product but they help you engage scripture from multiple angles. If you’ve already created a One Page Series Plan (see "Create A Killer Series") you’ll already have content to get your research started.

This branch is also the place where you can begin to craft that perfectly word-smithed bottom line (which never seems to come out right the first try). Don’t get into to sucked into the word-smithing right away. Write down a few ideas and let them live as twigs on this branch.

The Application

If you’ve already started to answer the question “What do you want them to do?” (See "The Most Under Recognized Ingredient in a Powerful Message") you can plug in some of those next steps here. How can your audience apply what you are saying? As you created examples in “The Problem” branch, you can start to offer the next steps here in “The Application” branch.

4. Get Started

Just like writing; your first draft isn’t about editing. It’s about getting all the great ideas out of your head. Editing comes later when you’re ready for your critical mind to kick in.

Jump around and add your ideas as you dive into your research and when you’re done, you’ll have a treasure trove of fantastic content to move into your writing stage. Not only will you have your ideas organized, they will be organized in a logic flow rather than just in the order you discovered them in your research.

How To Know If You're In The Right Leadership Position

Leadership is a life long experience and at times it can be difficult to figure out if you’re in the right spot. Sometimes you may feel underwhelmed, or maybe you feel over loaded. Then again, maybe your just stuck.

Finding the right (and timely) leadership position can keep you on a sustainable path; failing to do so will inevitably lead to burnout or boredom.

Failing to find the right leadership position will lead to burnout or boredom.
— StevenJBarker

I recently bought my first motorcycle and it’s as if driving is new again. Things that I had long since taken for granted are fresh and interesting. What had become just another metal box flying down the highway next to me now has become a potential deadly obstacle. Smells and sounds that I had never really experienced in my car are now a vivid multi sensory experience. Driving has become raw and invigorating. 

For many of us, if leadership is going to be sustainable it needs to feel just raw enough and invigorating enough to keep us in the game. 

So how do you know you’re in the right leadership position? 

Don’t Outdrive Your Headlight

To stay engaged in your leadership role you need to stay at the edge of your capacity.

When you drive a vehicle at night for example, you really can only drive as fast as your eye can see. If you begin to outdrive your headlights you won’t have the time to react to any obstacles you may encounter. 

The same is true of leadership. It can be tempting to “bite off more than you can chew” but in reality, you really just want to bite off enough that’s somewhat difficult to chew. You want to take on enough responsibility that the work is challenging but not so much that you’re floundering. 

And to clarify, when I say take on responsibility I mean taking ownership for delivering results. If that means you’re starting something new, you’re taking on the responsibility to make that new “thing” a success. If you’re taking over an existing team, that means taking ownership of that team’s continued success and growth. 

Push yourself to the edge of your capacity. Keep yourself just uncomfortable enough that you have no choice but to keep learning. As you learn more you upgrade your leadership headlight and subsequently you can see further and further down the path. 

Keep Your Tank Full

At the same time you’re pushing forward, you’ve got to keep your gas thank full. Do you know what fills your tank? Is it your family relationships? Is it time with “safe” friends? (Do you still have those?) Do you have a hobby? Are you taking days off, just for you? 

Keeping your tank full is incredibly important. 

Schedule that time, invest in yourself. You’re no good to anyone else if you aren’t taking care of you. 

Watch Your Gauges

Then keep an eye on your gauges. Thing of it like this: leadership is supposed to hurt your head a little. It’s supposed to be challenging enough that it makes you think hard enough to make you feel a little tired at the end of the day. Your leadership pain gauge has three colors, you want to spend most of your time in the yellow zone. 

Green: If you’re to relaxed, eventually you’ll find yourself getting bored and tired of dealing with frivolous issues. You won’t have enough skin in the game to push through because your “purpose” engine won’t be burning hot enough. 

Red: If you find yourself maxed out, where you’re overly stressed about keeping all the plates spinning, you’ll certainly get yourself in trouble. No one can operate at that speed for a sustainable length of time. Back off a little, ask for help. Ask your team for assistance (or form a team if you don’t have one). Find someone on your team that’s currently leading in the green zone and ask them to take some of the load. 

Yellow: This is the sweet spot. It means you’re working hard enough your head hurts a little. You’re paying attention to what’s going on. You'll find yourself reading more, asking better questions and pushing toward audacious but attainable goals. 

You’re in the right leadership position when your brain hurts a little.
— StevenJBarker

Finding the right leadership positions means you’re regularly evaluating your current role and responsibilities. Take some time today to ask yourself these questions (and schedule at time to do it again in three months). 

  1. Am I driving faster than my headlights? 
  2. Is my tank getting close to empty? 
  3. Which zone is my leadership pain gauge in?  

And if you’ve got the guts, talk to your boss or board about it….I'm willing to bet you have common goals. Every organization is stronger when everyone is running at top performance. 

Question of the day: What are your answers to the three questions? 

Please Stop Talking, My Brain Is Full

Why is it that your audience seems like their eyes are glazing over?  It's a horrible feeling but you think you might have completely lost your audience. And within seconds we begin to question ourselves? 

  • Am I boring? 
  • Am I not speaking at a level they can understand? 
  • Have I lost touch with my audience? 

And while the answer to any one of these questions might be yes, I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you aren't boring, you are speaking their language, and you haven't lost touch with your audience. But what you may have done is overloaded their brain!

Cognitive Load

Every person in our audience has a cognitive load. There is only so much that the "working memory" can handle.  Think of it this way, your audience has limited mental resources and without a doubt you are not the only influence on what's going on in their head at the given moment. They walked through the door with lives, with expectation and responsibilities. Without you saying a word they are thinking about something or someone. Their brain is already at work. 

Then you start talking. 

In that moment, and the moments going forward, your audience begins to multi-task. They will continue to "process" what you are saying while constantly asking themselves:

  • Does this apply to me?
  • Is what he's saying important? 
  • Is this something I need to remember? 
  • How does this fit into what she's already said? 

Every time you move on to a new section, new idea, or a new slide, they re-ask these questions. And just like "multi-tasking" we tend to only be able to do one thing at a time. For that split second, you've lost them. Stack a few "multi-tasking moments" together and your audience is slowly falling behind. 

So, how do you keep them with you? 

1. Limit the text on your slides. 

You advance to your next slide and it includes 3 bullets, each consisting of a short sentence. And for that moment, your audience's working memory goes into overdrive. They begin to process everything they see...and guess what, they're not listening. They're reading. 

Make it worse by not saying it exactly as it's written on screen and your audience is left guessing. 

"Wait, what he's saying doesn't match what I'm reading!" And for that moment, your audience tunes out. They gravitate to the written word. 

limit the text.jpg

Instead, limit the text on your slides. Keep them at a minimum and read them verbatim. Use them as a visual aid to exactly what you're saying. Understand that your audience is using them as a cue to identify what you feel is important. So make sure they do exactly that. 

2. Limit new concepts taught in short presentations.

If your presentation lasts for less than an hour, limit the number of new concepts you are teaching or unpacking during your talk. Build off of common knowledge. Every new concept you teach in your presentation requires your audience to think about how each new item applies. Add too many and it get's confusing. 

This isn't a knowledge dump. You aren't just trying to share a bunch of information. You are actually trying to move someone from where they are to someplace new. You are trying to teach them something, or convince them of something. So stay focused on that. Stay focused on your desired outcome and move towards that outcome. Answer the question, "What do I want them to do as a result of my talk?"  Then use as many already common concepts as you can to move your audience towards that desired outcome. 

3. Speak in a linear fashion. 

Think of each element of your presentation as a building block. Build something. Talk in a straight line. If you tend to bounce around from item to item, your audience is left guessing how what you're saying now applies to what you said 5 minutes ago. 


Use what you've already taught them to build on what your about to teach them. You not only reinforce and give context to that idea, but you also allow your audience the chance to apply what they are learning. 

For example, in this article I wanted you to limit the amount of concepts you were trying to teach in any given presentation before I talked about keeping it linear because it's important that we're working with the appropriate content before you talk about organizing that content. 

Give your presentation subtitles, even if it's only in your own notes. Make sure that every section builds on the previous. And if it doesn't, make sure your audience knows you're going to take a detour, but that you'll be back on track in a moment. They'll appreciate it and trust that you actually are going somewhere with what you're saying. 

Final Thoughts

Be conscious of the fact that no matter how smart your audience is, you've spent more time preparing than they have. It's your responsibility to bring them with you. If you can, let them know what problem you are trying to solve, right from the beginning of your presentation and then work backwards from there. Explain how what you are about to share applies to your topic and build on it. 

Your audience sees you as their guide, so do your job and take them on a journey.