Why Alliterated Outlines are Almost Always Absolutely Atrocious

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Some preachers alliterate their outlines making all their points begin with the same letter. Sometimes just the main points are alliterated, other times the sub-points are alliterated, still other times the sub-sub-points are alliterated. At one point it was taught as a great way to organize your message and really get your listeners to remember. To make it stick, alliterate! was the mantra. But we don’t see as much alliteration anymore. But does it make a difference? Alliterate or not, does it matter?

Here’s why alliterated outlines are almost always absolutely atrocious:

1. They make your message seem contrived. Alliterated outlines can appear contrived and forced. Like the preacher just needed a matching, neat outline so he grabbed whatever word fit the others regardless of whether it was actually the best word that communicated the meaning he wanted. Like this:

God wants three things from you:
1. Surrender
2. Service
3. Supplication (Seriously? “Prayer” would work just fine here more people would know automatically what it means)
2. Some alliterations can seem crowded and overly complicated. I’ve read pulpit commentaries that teach pastors how to alliterate several words in a line and make each subsequent line a parallel matching line. Here’s an example from a sermon I heard once: 

A genuine disciple is: 
1. Committed to a pure life.
2. Consistent in their personal life.
3. Constrained by the purpose of life.
4. Convinced of their position in life.

In addition to seeming painfully contrived, this is a complicated mess to navigate through. If we can learn anything from companies like Google, simplicity rules the day. A wordy, crowded, alliterated outline makes it difficult to navigate what is most important for your listeners to remember. 

3. They do not communicate authenticity. This is because it doesn’t seem like a real conversation. We don’t speak to each other in neat, alliterated sentences. As a preacher delivering a sermon you have to work hard to seem connected to your audience. Don’t make this harder on yourself by developing an outline that doesn’t seem real.

Every rule has an exception. Alliteration is not technically the problem. Overuse of alliteration and forced alliteration is the problem. Sometimes it can be very helpful. Other times it is a huge distraction. For me what makes the difference is whether memorizing it will help your audience when they walk away. If memorizing the outline is not something that would help them, then there is no need to alliterated. 

If you were preaching on three ways God wants us to love him your outline could be Head, Heart and Hands. “God wants us to love him with our minds (head), he wants our full emotions (heart), and he wants us to serve him (hands).” It’s simple and could be very useful to your listeners.
But this can be overused too. And if done too much or in a forced way can also be a distraction. So I am careful not to use something like that too much.
Do you alliterate? Why? Why not? What have you found to helpful when organizing an outline?
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  • I find myself slipping into the need to alliterate. For some reason I have been taught or gotten it into my head that I must alliterate. There are times when I will sit thinking of a word that will “work” to complete my string of corresponding letters when the right word is staring at me or right in the passage I am speaking from. I believe we need to start allowing our churches to follow the thought process of the text more than our own. I am now starting to allow the text to dictate the outline and when it is expedient to use alliteration.

  • Becca

    “Yes” to every point you made here! I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about why it is distracting to me, but your first point clearly spells it out. I want to hear something that is genuine and real and while I do know sermons need to be prepared ahead of time, if they’re too neat and tidy, it just doesn’t come across as genuine in many cases.

    • Thanks Becca. It’s a constant challenge we face as preachers to be well-prepared (which is a good thing) and be flexible in the moment where the Spirit leads.

  • Great article and a great example of not needing to alliterate in order to effectively communicate.
    I did notice that you could have alliterated your post — you had several “C” words in your main points.
    1. Contrived
    2. Crowded and complicated
    3. not Communicate

    But you used those words because they communicated your intent, not because they started with the letter “C”. Alliteration wouldn’t have helped your post — in fact, it would have been distracting.

  • Bill Wilder

    Would a sermon that is (1)short, (2) simple and most of all (3) Savior oriented be too contrived?

    • Jameson Reynolds

      ha, I see you did there 🙂

  • josh

    I appreciate the post and thoughts. However… it seems this is something that annoys you but I am not sure that that means that it is ineffective. I think young preachers may be annoyed by it not sure that everybody under 30 hates it.
    Being authentic has a lot more to do with how honest and heartfelt you are being vs the actual words you use. I think it is effective as some fronts also it can help with the flow. Probably helpful to the same % of people that find it annoying.

  • Jon

    I once heard a preaching with this alliteration…
    Title: The Christmas Message
    First point (with much reverence): JESUS
    Second point (getting emotional): JOSEPH
    Third point (getting happy): JOY TO THE WORLD

    I almost fell off my chair. (lol) – Jon