Illustrations use something people do understand to explain what they don’t understand. Non-Christians understand newspapers, magazines, bumper stickers, and billboards. They see these daily. Illustrations from such sources help drive home the truth from God’s Word. Charles Spurgeon viewed the sermon as the house, and the illustrations as the windows that let in the light. Listeners hear the truth you proclaim; through an illustration they see it. So when you use an illustration, you turn an ear into an eye. Seeing a sermon is always better than just hearing one.
Keep in mind, though, that understanding happens only through the power of the Holy Spirit. First Corinthians 2:14 reminds us, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” But illustrations are what the Holy Spirit often uses to cause people to understand truth, not just hear it.
Another reason illustrations are effective is they add interest. What happens when you hear a speaker make one of the following comments?
- You won’t believe what happened to me just two days ago.
- Did you see the article in the newspaper this morning?
- A friend e-mailed this story to me.
- The evening news last night reported an interesting event.
- You’re going to laugh when I tell you what happened to a good friend last week.
Instantly, you look up. If you’re starting to doze, you wake up. Your eyes are focused, you listen more keenly, your attention is captured. Which messages cause you to glance at your watch the most—the ones with illustrations or the ones without? Illustrations enliven a message and keep your attention. If told well, a three-minute story seems more like thirty seconds. When listening to speakers who illustrate well, you’re surprised when they’re finished instead of wishing they were. Illustrations, then, make a message interesting.
Ralph Waldo Emerson summarized it well: “I cannot hear a sermon without being struck by the fact that amid drowsy series of sentences, what a sensation a historical fact, a biographical name, a sharply objective illustration makes.”
Spurgeon captured the thought in seven words: “Illustrations make a sermon pleasurable and interesting.”
When a speaker doesn’t use illustrations, the message comes across as academic, not quite connected with life. Beyond that, the speaker cannot hold the attention of an audience as well. Spurgeon told his students, “A house must not have thick walls without openings, neither must a discourse be all made up of solid slabs of doctrine without a window of comparison or a lattice of poetry; if so, our hearers will gradually forsake us, and prefer to stay at home and read their favorite authors whose lively tropes and vivid images afford more pleasure to their minds.”
USA Today once carried a special article titled, “When giving speech, tell a good story.” It featured thoughts from Mark Wiskup, a professional communicator coach. The article read, “At different points in your speech, insert stories so that you can ‘paint the picture with words.’ Well crafted and well delivered stories build connections, make people comfortable, and make cold figures and seemingly distant concepts reassuring. ‘Audiences want to follow and learn from speakers who are inspiring and who make actual messages come alive,’ [Wiskup] says.”
If listeners understand Scripture more easily and you can hold their attention, God has used illustrations to bring them one step closer to the kingdom.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson cited in Michael J. Hostetler, Illustrating the Sermon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989).
 C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954).
 Mark Wiskup, Presentation S.O.S.: From Perspiration to Persuasion in 9 Easy Steps (New York: Business Plus, 2005).