Communicating with Clarity
5 Essentials to Effectively Communicate to Today’s Young People
Why talk for 25 minutes when you can say it in 5?
Seriously. Think about it for a moment. Picture a typical youth gathering where an adult has the opportunity to share the truth with kids. Now imagine this. A woman in her young 20’s walks to the front of the room and opens with these words. “Last year I realized that the friends I surrounded myself with were dragging me down, so I made one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made in my life…”
For the next four minutes she shares a story of how surrounding herself with the wrong crowd led to disaster. Then she shares a scripture out of Hebrews 10 stating that we need to surround ourselves with people of encouragement—people who will help us with our faith walk, not hinder it. She closes with these words. “Think of the handful of people you spend the most time with? Are they drawing you closer to Christ… or dragging you away?”
She sits down.
Total talk time, 6 minutes and 22 seconds.
Let me ask you a question. Would that talk be more powerful if she blabbed for another 30 minutes?
This subject is dear to my heart. “Wouldn’t it be nice if all of us could communicate the scriptures like Francis Chan or speak with the clarity of Andy Stanley? Francis goes about 45 minutes… Andy averages about 40 minutes… I should do the same, right? Newsflash: You aren’t Chan! You aren’t Stanley. They are one in a million. So stop trying to talk as long as them!”
Every month I get the opportunity to hear youth workers speak to kids. The typical youth worker will talk to kids for about 25 to 45 minutes…. yes… sermons that feel longer than the last Lord of the Rings film. Sadly, regardless of the length and style, most of the speakers I hear today lose their audience within the first 3 to 7 minutes.
Why do we insist on torturing our kids with bad communication?
I wish this were just limited to a few isolated cases. Unfortunately, bad communication is abundant. I receive DVDs every month from people that want to be national speakers. Most these DVDs are from guys who insist that they have the gift of communication and want to speak for a living. Sometimes, watching these DVDs feels like watching the American Idol gag real. (You know, when the person applying is the only one that doesn’t realize they shouldn’t quit their day job!)
Maybe it sounds like I’m being harsh, after all, many youth ministries are run by volunteers that might not have the gift of communication. Does effective ministry require dynamic communicators?
Speaking candidly, wouldn’t most ministries prove to be much more effective if they simply knew the gifting of their leaders. In other words, Chuck isn’t a great communicator, so please stop giving him 40 minutes to talk to our kids every Wednesday night.
So what should we do?
I asked the question in before and heard some great feedback from a bunch of you. “How many minutes will kids actually listen?”
Many of you indicated that you keep talks short. Others incorporate small group time so that young people can process and discuss what they’ve learned. Some of you try to change it up to kill any monotony. Still, some seem to be resisting short teaching time, in fear of “watering down” the message.
I guess that’s really the big dilemma: I want to keep it short enough to be memorable and clear, yet not so short that we lose clarity and depth.
It seems that most of us would agree with seeking “clarity” in our communication. No one would complain if kids walked out with a clear understanding of scriptural truth. The question is, “what methodology best accomplishes that goal?”
Or let’s think about it in terms that many youth workers can relate to. 23 kids are gathered in the small junior high room in the church basement on a Wednesday evening. Several wiry 6th grade boys roll on the floor wrestling, while a handful of older boys run the foosball table. Across the room a gathering of 8th grade girls whisper and giggle with each other. Adult volunteers are interacting with many of the kids. A few sit alone. Soon, a youth worker announces, “Come on everyone, let’s bring it together.”And after some shuffling and herding, the students are gathered into a small audience facing the front of the room. Announcements, maybe games… but sooner or later, regardless of format, we share a message of truth.
We’ve got a message to communicate; we’ve got a captive audience… how can we communicate that message to young people most effectively?
Is there one answer?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. (Yes, these thoughts are nothing new. This is the reason I wrote the book, 10-Minute Talks. I’ve noticed this glaring need for “clarity” in communication for a while now.) Here’re some of the principles I’m going to cover on this topic:
-ONLY USE GIFTED COMMUNICATORS (Click here)
-USE SMALL GROUP TIME TO TEACH
-USE PROFESSIONAL RESOURCES
I want to start by talking about the power of the story.
1. THE POWER OF THE STORY
I’ve always loved stories. As a kid I loved bedtime stories. Around the campfire my brother and I loved it when my dad told scary stories. Whenever he would finish, we’d yell, “Another one! Another one!”
When’s the last time someone yelled that when you finished your talk?
Stories are powerful.
I learned the power of a story a little over 15 years ago when I started speaking in the public school. By God’s grace, a campus ministry I was a part of started bringing out a couple hundred kids weekly. These weren’t church kids by any means, and the last thing on their mind was sitting down and listening to a sermon. Most of them were there for basketball, friends and food. But every week I was determined to share some truth with them. So I began ‘cutting my teeth’ at the skill of speaking. (If you ever want to learn how to communicate to young people, try speaking to 200+ kids that don’t want to be preached to, sitting in school bleachers.) I quickly learned what works and what doesn’t.
Some of the biggest lessons I learned:
- You’ve got about 30 seconds to grab their attention, then the rest of the time to keep it.
- Stories work.
- Humor is a plus.
Fast-forward to a few months ago when I stood in front of a few thousand kids in a school auditorium. Guess what three principles I still use? (Yep, same three)
I’ve seen a lot of speakers with a lot of gimmicks. I’ve seen speakers that required all kinds of technology, PowerPoint and props. Some of these tools can be very effective. But when I speak, I want one thing: a microphone that works (usually one with a cord- the chances of it working increase greatly). Why? A simple fact: I’ve got stories, and kids love hearing stories.
Using stories is nothing new. Do I even need to bring up Jesus’ use of stories? From what we read in the Gospels, Jesus was a master communicator. Secular philosophers even attest to his effective teaching style. His use of parables not only used stories, but they punched the audience in the gut with convicting truths that they needed to hear. Stories can help us communicate truth with clarity.
To this day, I still use talks that are simply stories with a wrap up.
If you peek at the left hand column of this blog, you’ll see the book I mentioned earlier titled, 10-Minute Talks. This book is a collection of a bunch of talks that I’ve used over the years with great results. Why? They are all stories with one point and one scripture passage. If you read those talks, I think you’ll find that they are simple, clear… and far from watered down.
Don’t underestimate the power of a story.
A few years ago a Youth for Christ group flew me out to speak to a bunch of middle school students at an all night event. When I was introduced, I was staring at an unruly crowd of 1400 middle school students who made two things clear. 1. They were ready for a night of fun. 2. They didn’t want to be sitting in an auditorium listening to me. When they handed me the microphone, a kid in the front row literally said, “Who the Hell are you?” No one else in the room heard, because they were all involved in their own conversations.
I reminded God that I needed him (okay, yes, I reminded me), and then I began telling a story.
“When I was 18-years old, I gave my friend $12,000 dollars. Actually, it didn’t start that way. I had to almost kill him first… but more on that in a minute. It started with me and four of my friends showing up to his house at 6 o’clock in the morning to celebrate his birthday. His mom let us upstairs into his room, and…”
Within 30 seconds, they were hooked.
About 25 minutes later I gave an invitation and over 100 kids came forward and received Christ.
I didn’t have a podium on stage. No PowerPoint. No notes. Here was my outline:
- Greg story
- House on the rock- Matthew 7
- What is your foundation?
Yes, you better believe I worked hard on nailing those transitions between each of those points. But the fact remains, that talk was simply one story, one scripture, communicating one simple point.
Don’t underestimate the power of a story.
2. ONLY USE GIFTED COMMUNICATORS
We all have gifts. Paul talks about these gifts in I Corinthians 12. He gives the analogy of body parts. This is a great analogy. Would you try to walk two miles on your eyeballs? Would you try to listen with your bellybutton? Would you try to talk with your elbows? (Okay, so I used a few body parts that Paul didn’t mention. Don’t do this with a Jr. high audience… it will surely digress even worse.)
So why do we constantly try to force people into molds that they don’t fit?
Sadly, some people don’t realize that they are not a “mouth.” They see a mouth and they think, “I’d love to be able to do that.” Problem is… they’re a foot. And the more a “foot” tries to be a “mouth,” the more it looks like the blooper real on American Idol tryouts. Everyone in the room sees it… except the “foot!”
My wife Lori is amazing. Anyone who meets her readily admits, “Jonathan, you got yourself a winner there.” Or the people that know me and finally meet her say, “Okay, now I know where the strength in this marriage lies.” (Nice!) She’s truly remarkable.
Lori is a behind-the-scenes person. She’s great at organizing and handling minute details. She’s administered 1,000-person events without a glitch. She’s a huge asset to whatever team she’s a part of.
Guess what? She hates speaking in front of a crowd. She gets quiet, turns as red as a turnip and she second-guesses everything she says. Communication isn’t her strong suit.
Does that make her a lousy team member?
Heck no. I need a “Lori” on my team. (Actually, I need about 10 “Loris.”)
It would be silly to try to make Lori into a speaker. This doesn’t mean that Lori shouldn’t ever have to learn to communicate her faith to others. Lori’s done that. In fact, she’s fantastic one-on-one. She’s discipled plenty of girls and even led a Bible Study (80% facilitation, 20% talking and leading). But I’ve never tried to force Lori into speaking.
The church needs to become better at helping people find and use their gifts.
Sometimes that means having some uncomfortable conversations—like telling Chuck that you’re not going to be using him to speak to the high school kids anymore. This doesn’t mean you need to be mean.
“Chuck, you suck!”
Far from it. But someone with the gift of discernment needs to take Chuck aside an help him find his gifting.
“Chuck, I really appreciate you being willing to communicate to the high school kids every week. But let me tell you something that I’ve observed. I’ve noticed that you are amazing at hanging out with the fringe kids in our group. You have a radar for “outcasts.” The other night I saw you watching the crowd and you noticed that new kid Brian wearing all black and sitting in the back. It was awesome watching how you sat next to him and started a conversation with him. You have so much compassion for those kids. I think that’s your gift Chuck. Speaking isn’t.”
It takes a certain person to be able to initiate these conversations. (Yes, that ability is also a gift.)
The church needs to become better at helping people find and use their gifts.
How do you find and develop speakers in your ministry?
- Try out different leaders sharing their “story” for 5 minutes in front of the group. You’ll notice who feels natural up front and who doesn’t. If they are a natural communicator, affirm them in that ability.
- Ask those “natural communicators” if they’d share a 10-minute talk a few weeks later. Give them the content for that talk (maybe a book called, 10-Minute Talks) and see how they do. Not all natural communicators are good at developing content. That is a learned skill.
- If they do well with the 10-minute talk, then take the next step and talk with them about developing content. Give them a book that talks about how to develop Biblical talks. One of the best books ever written on the subject is Dr. Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching. Ken Davis’ book, The Secrets of Dynamic Communication is another great one. Help them develop some simple, short talks and give them an opportunity to deliver these talks in a safe environment.
Before long, you might find a handful of communicators in your midst… and Chuck will experience great results using his gifts where needed.
3. TALK SHORTER
When I mention the concept of using 10 minute messages, some people grow concerned and say things like:
“We shouldn’t cater to our culture’s short attention span.”
“We need to be teaching the youth that God is deserving of more attention than anything else in their lives.”
It seems that many us are worried that shorter messages mean “watered down” messages.
Is this true? If we shorten our talks, are we sacrificing depth? Or, as I asked previously, “How can we be memorable and clear, yet not so short that we lose clarity and depth?”
Let’s look at the length of some of the most famous and memorable speeches in history. For example, how many minutes was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech?
How many minutes was Winston Churchill’s famous “Never Give In” speech at Harrow School on October 29, 1941?
4 minutes, 12 seconds.
How about Abe Lincoln’s Gettysburg address on November 2, 1863? Surely this was a longer talk.
For such powerful, memorable, life changing speeches… those seem pretty short.
Some might argue that these aren’t Biblical examples. Maybe sharing Biblical truth takes longer. The other day a person commented to Day One of this blog series, “The Bible isn’t made for 5 to 10 minute consumption.”
I admit I wasn’t there when Jesus gave most of his talks, so all I have of his teaching is what I read in the Gospels. For example, in Luke 8 a large crowd gathered and he told them the parable of the sower. If you read that parable out loud, it will take less than a minute.
Like I said, I wasn’t there. Maybe that was only part of a much larger talk to that crowd. Or maybe he just told that story. Either way, the only thing that Luke wrote down was that short little story. The memorable part of that talk was one story, telling one powerful point.
In Luke 10 a man asked Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Wow. That’s a big question, right? We wouldn’t want to water it down with a short answer.
Jesus answered with a question. “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”
The man answers with the greatest commandment. Jesus basically responds, “Correctamundo!”
But the man wants a little more details, so he asks, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus answered the question with another story. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers…” Again, this story takes about a minute to tell. If you read all of Luke 10, this whole interaction takes about a minute or two…then, off to another village.
Has anyone ever accused Jesus’ one or two-minute response of being “watered down?”
Far from it.
In a simple one-minute-story Jesus hits his audience hard with a point that would never be forgotten. Not only was his story memorable and powerful… he made the most despicable sinner imaginable the hero of the story (imagine telling that story in church today and making Lady Gaga the hero).
Short? About one minute.
The fact is this: the Gospel writers frequently record Jesus talking to people in short, memorable stories. Maybe Jesus was on to something.
My point is simply this: Why say something in 25 minutes when you could say it in one minute?
4. USE SMALL GROUP TIME
The average youth group in America has just over a dozen young people and is led by a volunteer. Some of these volunteers aren’t gifted communicators…. and that’s okay. Small groups don’t require leaders who can deliver dynamic expository sermons. They actually require a skill that most people find even more difficult to do: the ability to listen!
Small group leading should probably be called “small group facilitating.” Because the key to small group time is to get kids talking and leaders listening.
I speak at a dozen or more camps each year. Many of these camps have a small group time after I am finished speaking. The leader of the camp will always ask me to provide some discussion questions for the “cabin leaders” or “counselors.” It’s fun to walk around after my talk and peek in on these small group times.
Guess what I observe over 90% of the time?
Leaders talking, and kids listening.
Actually… let me rephrase my observation: Leaders blabbing on and on… and kids tuning out, wishing they were somewhere else.
What a wasted opportunity.
True small group time should always include the following:
- Good questions that stimulate conversation and help kids discover truth.
- A leader that knows how to ask questions… and shut up! (Sorry for using the “s-word.”)
Let me go back to that question that has been asked multiple times in the last couple weeks. “Jonathan, what do we do if we’re not a good communicator?”
My answer: Introduce a subject with some sort of discussion provoker, then divide to small groups with trained leaders.
Let me give you some help with this.
USE DISCUSSION PROVOKERS
It doesn’t matter if your gift isn’t communication (Maybe you’re the only leader who actually shows up!), just kick off the discussion with something that gets their attention, and divide to small groups.
Let’s take a peek at what this looks like.
Our web site has a ton of these that are readymade for youth leaders. Jump on TheSource4YM.com and access that dropdown menu on the top left hand side of the page where it says FREE RESOURCES & IDEAS. From that dropdown menu you’ll see a ton of great free resources that not only provide you with good discussion provokers, they also provide you with really good small group questions, scripture, and wrap ups. Take a peek.
From that dropdown menu you’ll see MUSIC DISCUSSIONS. This page uses music to get kids attention. Then, they provide the transition statement you can use as you divide your kids into small groups (and everything you’ll need once you get them there). These free resources are great for provoking discussion and dividing to small groups.
Life is full of moments that might be good discussion starters. I remember watching a lady digging through the garbage of a fast food restaurant for her keys, only to later find them in her back pocket. I thought to myself, “That’s a discussion starter if I’ve ever seen one!” Think about it.
- Are you ever looking for the right thing in all the wrong places?
- What kind of garbage are you digging through on your quest for answers?
So if you’re not a naturally gifted communicator, just use a discussion provoker and divide to small groups. But then, make sure you use trained volunteer leaders who know how to listen. Our web site can help you in this area as well with our free YOUTH MINISTRY HELP page.
5. USE PROFESSIONAL RESOURCES
Ken is a youth worker I met whose gift is NOT speaking. Ken would readily admit this if you asked him. His gifts are much more relational (compassion, hospitality, etc.) But for some reason, Ken insists on trying to write his own talks week after week and write his own small group questions.
Sadly, his talks are as boring as an insurance seminar and his small group questions are weak.
Ken isn’t a bad guy just because speaking and developing content isn’t his gift… Ken just needs to be willing to enlist some help.
So far in this article I’ve been writing about how to communicate to young people in a way that’s memorable and clear. As I wrap up my final thoughts I’m compelled to simply implore, don’t be afraid to get help!
I don’t know why this is even a problem for some. The only culprit I can even fathom is “pride.” But for some reason, bad speakers will often cling on to the responsibility of speaking or developing discussion material every week even though their material really stinks!
Some people are not gifted in the area of speaking or developing content. Maybe these people don’t know their material stinks. Maybe they think that it’s part of their job and if they don’t do it themselves, they’re done. Regardless, people like Ken who doesn’t have the gift of speaking or developing content often keep at it instead of enlisting help from someone gifted in that area.
Don’t do it!
Allow me to be the Simon Cowell in your life right now, if that’s what it takes. If speaking and writing isn’t your gift, stop speaking and developing your own content. Enlist some help.
Allow me to quickly clarify. In the last couple weeks we discussed the fact that some people are “stuck” in a speaking role every week. They might be the only one who stepped up to the challenge and frankly, no one else will do it. I advised this person to try several things:
- Talking shorter
- Using one story, one point and one passage
- Using small group questions
These simple tools can help most of us, even those without the gift of communication, communicate with better clarity.
So let me add one final tool to the list: Use professional resources for your speaking and small group content.
Use Professional Resources
Let’s go back to Ken. Ken knows that speaking isn’t his gift, yet he speaks and writes his own content every week.
If Ken has access to books and/or is connected to the web, he has a cornucopia of content at his fingertips. Ken shouldn’t be afraid to use them. The Kens of this world should stop trying to re-invent the wheel. Use ready-made resources developed by those with the gift of speaking and writing.
I’m going to suggest a couple of resources that I’ve used, then I’m going to ask you all to chime in with your suggestions of what resources and curriculum you have used with great results.
RESOURCES TO HELP YOU DEVELOP YOUR SPEAKING/TEACHING:
- Communicating for a Change– by Andy Stanley
- Biblical Preaching– by Dr. Haddon Robinson
- The Secrets of Dynamic Communication– By Ken Davis
RESOURCES WITH READY-MADE TALKS/SMALL GROUP QUESTIONS:
I’ve already mentioned above several great free resources with small group discussion questions on our website. Be sure to check those out. In addition, try these:
- 10-Minute Talks– by Jonathan McKee (short talks, half of them outreach, half of them focused on growth, with small group questions)
- MORE 10-Minute Talks– By Jonathan McKee (more short talks of the same type, with small group questions included)
Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Bullying Breakthrough; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers on TheSource4YM.com. Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.