Principles of Teaching - Effective Illustrating

Every good craftsman has a toolbox—perhaps more than one. When there is a job to be done, a skilled craftsman does not assess the job primarily based on what tools can be used to get the job done. Instead, the focus is on what tools are needed in order to get the job done.

Of course, every now and then, the craftsman might acquire a new and wonderful tool that he can’t wait to use. Perhaps on those joyous occasions the craftsman might slightly depart from the most efficient path in order to add and enjoy the new wrinkle. In those instances, often the goal has changed from accomplishing a task to personal enjoyment.

If the craftsman is astute, he might be thinking with the long term in view—“If I learn how to incorporate this new tool now, on a project for which it is not really necessary, then when I really do need it, I will be comfortable and practiced, and will be better able to use it.” In either case, there are reasons that particular tools are used, and the skilled craftsman should be deliberate in those reasons.

Teaching is a craft, and there are tools of the teaching trade. Every teacher is well equipped with tools. But the skilled teacher is able to assess what tools are most appropriate for the occasion. Teaching is a strangely dependent craft, as there can be no effective teaching without some degree of learning actually taking place. While the learner certainly has responsibility in the process, the teacher’s focus ought to be on providing the learner with the information needed in a way that the learner can access and implement it.

Consequently, “That reminds me of a story” is one of the worst possible phrases a teacher can utter—especially if it is actually a true statement. “That reminds me of a story” implies a craftsman reaching into a toolbox to pull out a tool for no reason related to advancing the project, but only for the sake of personal enjoyment of the tool. Notice who is benefitting: the craftsman, not the project itself. In the case of illustrations being used arbitrarily, they are often employed for reasons more selfish than not.

Allow me to illustrate. Have you ever listened to someone speak, whose speech is driven by nothing but thought connections? Their monologue might go something like this:

How are you doing today? My day isn’t going so well—my car was having problems this morning. I remember when my car had problems a year ago. That was a good year, other than the car problems. That year I bought a TV, and it was really cool—it had picture in picture so I can watch two things at once. My kid was doing two things at once just the other day, and it was really funny. He was balancing on one foot while mixing some macaroni and cheese. I really like macaroni and cheese, but it is much better with seasoning than without. Steak is also really good with seasoning. I wonder if I should take my family out to eat steak this week. One time I took my family to an amusement park and we had a really good time. But once, we didn’t have a good time when I broke my arm and had to go the hospital. That wasn’t a good time at all. Have you ever noticed that hospital food isn’t seasoned well sometimes?

People who speak based on thought connections are thinking more selfishly than considerately, and such conversations are generally not as edifying as they could otherwise be (to put it gently). Teaching is no different. The skilled teacher ought to be always considerate of the learner, and one of the best ways to do that is to focus on what the learner needs and provide them that in the best, most effective way possible.

In short, the principle is simple:

Only illustrate when illustration is helpful for achieving the purpose of the teaching.

Don’t illustrate just because you know an illustration. Measure your words.

This means that the skilled teacher needs to have already assessed the needs of the learner before the teaching process begins, and should be deliberate in forming and implementing a plan to make that process as effective and fruitful as possible. All too often teachers will stray from their important material, in order to proceed down an irrelevant path of stories and personal experiences. Beware the unnecessary illustration, and consider three questions before using any illustration:

  1. Does the material demand an illustration, or would it stand better on its own?
  2. Does the illustration advance the teaching process, or hinder it?
  3. Is now the best time for an illustration (because if you use one now, the effectiveness of other illustrations will be diluted)?

If you are going to teach, then teach. Don’t just say a bunch of stuff. “The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd” (Ecclesiastes 12:11).

And remember—there are far better ways to teach than to simply begin with an illustration. That’s just lazy. (Ok, kidding about that last part, considering the first paragraph of this article.)

Christopher Cone 2015 Bio

Dr. Christopher Cone serves as Chief Academic Officer and Research Professor of Bible and Theology at Southern California Seminary. He formerly served as President of Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, Professor of Bible and Theology, and as a Pastor of Tyndale Bible Church. He has also held several teaching positions and is the author and general editor of several books. He blogs regularly at

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Aaron Blumer's picture


The craftsman & tools perspective is a good one.

Definitely not a fan of random story telling to fill time.

Sometimes "that reminds me of a story" leads to good things though--there is usually something relevant that triggered the memory, so some quick on-your-feet thinking can lead to either using the story spontaneously or not using it. You have to have some good criteria in mind to quickly evaluate whether it's worth using or will just be a rabbit trail.

Might be helpful also to factor in the formal/informal scale. In your typical pulpit discourse, those "just thought of a story" moments are usually best passed by, I think. In your less formal interactive teaching settings, there is a lot of opportunity to adapt to what's happening and experiment with a different illustration or a different way of explaining if it seems needed. That's the strength of the small-class or one-on-one setting... and there is no joy like using an unplanned illustration and seeing the lights truly come on in the learners.

Much of the discipline is in building what the old rhetors called your copia... your well of resources to draw on to fit the situation. But before you can spontaneously pull stuff from your copia, you have to understand the learning process and develop good instincts. The tools of the trade have to be intuitively understood either by innate talent/giftedness or by conscious development of the skills.

But my advice: if you have no knack for sensing learners' need for on-the-fly illustrating and employing something unplanned to meet the need of the moment--better to stick to the script.


alex o.'s picture

Dr. Cone is usually a good communicator and says beneficial things to Christians (I do seriously believe he is wrong in his "exegetical approach" to scripture in his defense of Disp.- his bias really shows).

He says some good things in this article about avoiding bulk but if it is not good to start with an illustration, why did he use it? I am not being picky here and want to explain why his illustration is inapt. What he is describing is a dabbler not a craftsman. No craftsman thinks like this (I am a craftsman among other things). So his illustration would fall flat to any craftspersons in his audience (and damage his credibility).

So if we are to learn additional things from this article besides bulking up our message (but actually, with his three-paragraph faulty illustration, he has bulked-up his article), we should learn to speak about what we actually know.

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

Aaron Blumer's picture


Vague criticism is not very useful. For Chris or anyone else to even know what you mean we'd have to know...

1 how does a "craftsman" differ from what he has described?
2 in what way wd this supposed craftsman think differently than the illustration describes?
3 by what means do you know the minds of all craftsmen?

Perhaps you have a point but there is no way to tell.

alex o.'s picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Vague criticism is not very useful. For Chris or anyone else to even know what you mean we'd have to know...

1 how does a "craftsman" differ from what he has described?
2 in what way wd this supposed craftsman think differently than the illustration describes?
3 by what means do you know the minds of all craftsmen?

Perhaps you have a point but there is no way to tell.

One doesn't have to know about craftsmen to get most of my findings with his post.

Perhaps Aaron if I answer #3 then you will understand. I don't claim to know the mind of all craftspersons but let me give my perspective and leave it.

Firstly, I am a son of a craftsman who, after a regular job, fixed and repaired about everything. For myself, I have never earned a dime from white-collar work. I have always been involved in skilled trades and environments with other skilled folks. I have personal passion in pursuit of understanding fine cabinetry without it ever paying off for me one whit. When I was a cabinet maker it so happened the shop was near a large library which contained books of ancient Japanese joinery which had nothing to do with current practice, it was just interest that drove me how they did things differently from western historic joinery.

As a journeyman carpenter working in construction for 20 years, I think my relations with the other trades such as plumbers, electricians, glazers, flooring layers, etc. has exposed me almost as much as anyone to various craftsmen and their ethos.

I do projects to relax myself. Every job is different and completing a project gives it own rewards even if I never use what I built. I am gifted in this area and recognize it. I also recognize Dr. Cone's unfamiliarly with the process by what he writes. he speaks of amateurs (dabblers) who don't have a clue. It is small and subtle things in his illustration that upon hearing, a real craftsman cringes at the description. I can mention two items: tool boxes, a real pain for craftsmen and only useful for transport and protection. Spatially, a craftsmen has a layout of tools which are an extension of himself. Tools are meant to be available. If someone is always packing tools in a toolbox maybe they are a packer and mover but not a craftsman. Tools are on the bench or handy in plain sight on shelves, not packed away. the same with "cases." The first thing most craftsmen do when they get a new screw gun is to throw the case away. Craftsmen use their tools not pack them-I would say this aspect is universally true. The folks who keep their tools hung on the wall neatly or in tool boxes are collectors and dabblers, not craftsmen.

Secondly, I've already mentioned the extension of the person in tool use. Its not about tools. What the trade focus is and always was and will be is: 1. the craftsman 2. what is produced. Tools are the means and minor. If you focus on tool use then you will be referring to operators not craftsmen, a different kettle of fish.

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

alex o.'s picture

The use of illustrations by preachers is an important topic which has always been an irritant to me since the practice is fraught with pitfalls.  In my previous post I have demonstrated how a member of a group (craftsmen) may be alienated when speaking about them from a non-specialist. I did not want to nitpick (and I didn't) but what struck me with the extended illustration is that it didn't ring true to my experience at all. I am not alienated but this could be different for other audience members when giving illustrations.

To me the bible doesn't use illustrations but rather analogies which refer to an aspect of the concept of discussion. Often many analogies are given, particularly with Jesus, to show facets of the topic. An illustration seems to go too far in that it mostly attempts to comprehensively correspond to the topic. This is fairly impossible and I don't see warrant for this method biblically.

Scripture uses parables which analogizes certain aspects but are never comprehensive. Instead, several analogies are needed to round-out the concept. For instance: Paul says in one phrase that Christians are God's building, His field. If Paul only mentioned "field" then someone could conclude that growth was just a natural process. By using building, he shows a builder is involved and Christians do not grow by themselves.

So for this odd post from Dr. Cone he should decide whether it is lazy to start with an illustration or not. I say "not". I see no reason to chuck illustrations altogether and imitate, in this case, the biblical use of analogies. I have heard that audiences need this type of entertainment to relate but this doesn't hold true at all. Audience members are wiser than we give them credit and they can handle a sermon without these distracting illustrations.

BTW, Dr. Cone has not acquired a troll in me. He says many good things on other topics. He is prolific and I happen to disagree with a couple of his ideas.

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

Aaron Blumer's picture


I'm not sure how to respond... which probably means I should shut up. Biggrin

But alas, I'm not going to!

I can really only speak from experience on this. "Illustration" tends to be used to refer to supporting/supplemental material that really serves several different purposes in teaching/preaching.

  • Help relating the unknown to the known/familiar
  • Help staying engaged
  • Help seeing a distinction we're inclined to miss (analysis)
  • Help seeing a similarity/connection we're inclined to miss (synthesis)
  • Help seeing what an abstract idea 'looks like' more concretely

Depending on the situation, lots of different types of illustrative material can be helpful, from anecdotes, to analogies, to quotations, to bits of fiction, bits of history, an 'object lesson,' a bit of acting out, or just a variety of examples.

Since people are emotional creatures and the intellect & emotions play off each other in interesting, often surprising ways, careful but intentional use of emotion is appropriate. We don't want to be manipulative (and relatively few of us have that sort of skill really, though we probably all know people who do have it!). But often clarity of thought comes in the context of emotionally stimulated focus.

Can illustrations be distracting? Sure. There is no foolproof way to avoid that, though it's responsible to do our best. The thing is, what distracts one person might help open up/bring understanding to two or three others. 

I occasionally hear speakers use illustrative analogies in areas I'm very familiar with but they clearly are not really all that familiar. I don't usually find it distracting because I can see the points of similarity and dissimilarity they are shooting for. There are no perfect analogies (as the analogy nears perfection it ceases to be analogy--until it eventually you're using an analogy of apples to explain apples!)

But I've botched more than a few.

One example: Early in my ministry I was talking about a text where believers are enjoined to grow. I used an illustration of how tragic it would be if a little toddler stayed a toddler and never grew up. In retrospect, it doesn't work all that well, because now--as a parent--I know how conflicted we actually feel about that. "Tragic?" Well, I love my kids as teens but I also miss the toddler versions.   ... probably a distracting illustration because all the moms and dads were either thinking "He has no idea what he's talking about" or were off on a rabbit trail thinking "Would that really be tragic?"

I'm sure I've had other fails that were worse that I don't even know about.

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