Speaking to a Generation with a Short Attention Span
Speaking to Make an Impact, Not Just to Entertain!
By Jonathan McKee
It’s Wednesday night, a ton of students showed up. Everything is going well. Staff are mingling with students. New students are meeting others. Everyone seems to be having a good time.
The evening goes on better than normal, without a hitch . . . and then it’s time to communicate the truth to everyone. It’s time for the speaker, the talk, the lesson, the main course, the sharing of the WORD . . . whatever you call it.
The speaker takes the front, opens his mouth, and words spill out. For 30 seconds the students look up front. Then an occasional head turns to the side and whispers. Then more heads turn. Within 8 minutes into the presentation, the speaker has the attention of 20% of the room.
THIS HAPPENS EVERY WEEK ACROSS THE GLOBE. We get students in, we show them a good time, we have an open door . . . and we can’t keep their attention for even 10 minutes. What do we do?
Well, we could hire a national speaker to come out every week. Okay . . . maybe once a year, but let’s be realistic. How can we develop OUR speaking skills and/or the speaking skills of our speaking staff.
I could just recommend a few books for you to read, but I’m all about giving you FREE resources, so here you are: THE BASICS we need to know before standing up in front of a group of students.
3 STEPS TO DEVELOPING A BETTER TALK
1. Select Your Point
How many times have you heard a talk, and 5 minutes after it is over . . . you couldn’t tell your friend what it was about. The talk might have even had some great illustrations or valid truths. But you really have no clue what the speaker’s point was.
The first thing we need to do when we put a talk together is SELECT OUR POINT! So many of us are guilty of just standing up and speaking from one point to the next. Even if someone were to ask us what our talk is about, we couldn’t verbalize it. We would have to regurgitate out a bunch of different points, a passage and a story or two. Well, stories and passages are great- but WHAT IS THE POINT?
When we speak, we need to find ONE MAJOR POINT. If we are speaking on a particular scripture, we need to discover ONE MAJOR THEME of that passage that we want to share with our audience. Did you remember those papers you wrote in high school or college? Do you remember your teacher over-emphasizing “What is your thesis statement?” Well that is what we’re talking about. Select your thesis statement . . . select your point!
When selecting our point we can go down two different roads. We can do the CAN talk or the SHOULD talk. Over 99% of your talks will be one or the other. The CAN talk is simply a talk where we are convincing the audience that they CAN do something. And what is the question we ask if someone tells us that we CAN do something? We ask “HOW?” The body of our talk will tell HOW the audience CAN do something.
The SHOULD talk is simply a talk where we are convincing the audience that they SHOULD do something. And what is the question we ask if someone tells us that we SHOULD do something? We ask “WHY?” The body of our talk will tell WHY the audience SHOULD do something.
So when selecting our point. We need to figure out which talk- the CAN or the SHOULD- we are going to give.
If we wanted to talk about ANGER, our point could be “You Should Not Lose Control of Your Anger.” Then we would explain WHY we shouldn’t lose control. Possibly because it hurts those around us, or because it’s wrong, or because we have to keep patching sheet-rock in our house!
Or we could choose to make the point “You CAN control your anger.” Then we could explain HOW to do so. By praying for God’s help, counting to 10, and cutting down on how much Jerry Springer we watch.
The same is true if we are preaching out of a passage of scripture. For example. Let’s look at I Peter 2:11-12 (NLT).
Dear brothers and sisters, you are foreigners and aliens here. So I warn you to keep away from evil desires because they fight against your very souls.  Be careful how you live among your unbelieving neighbors. Even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will believe and give honor to God when he comes to judge the world.
After studying this passage, we find that the context is about living in the light as God’s people. These two verses can bring several points out. Our point might be “Actions Matter.” That is a SHOULD talk. “You SHOULD watch the way you act.” Then in the talk we can give reasons “WHY.”
Our point could be “Living in the Light.” This is a CAN talk. “You CAN Live in the Light.” Then our talk will tell us HOW to live in the light.
The main point I like to take out of this passage is, “Watch out for Evil Desires!” What kind of talk is that, a CAN or a SHOULD? You’re right if you said a SHOULD talk. “You SHOULD watch out for evil desires!” That raises the question “WHY?” We can examine how to answer this later, in step III.
Selecting your point is the most tedious and even painful part of preparing a talk. But it’s worth it. Once your point is clear, everything else flows together. Everything in your talk now must support your point. This keeps us from wandering down tangents that distract from the main point we want to communicate.
Step 2. State Your Point
Once we’ve decided what the point of our talk is, we want to figure out the best way to say it. Some of us might ask, “Why not just say it?” Sure . . . we could just say, “You should not lose control of your anger!” But let’s give ourselves a little more creativity credit than that.
It is important to state your point in a “sound-bite” or phrase that is catchy. We want to take our point and make it a small, easy to remember sound-bite that students will remember when they walk away.
Think of famous sound-bites in history. “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” From Abraham Lincoln to Winston Churchill, great speakers master the sound-bite. Want a modern day example? Okay . . . how about Johnny Cochran when he said, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit!”
How could we change our anger point into a sound-bite? How about, “Don’t Choose to Lose!”
As we go through this process of 1.) Selecting our Point and 2.) Stating our Point, we slowly mold our talk into a focused message that students hear loud and clear. The only thing left to do is Step 3 . . .
Step 3. Support Your Point
Supporting our point is simply answering the HOW or the WHY, and giving examples. It would do no good to just walk up to someone and say, “Don’t Choose to Lose!” and walk away. But in a carefully crafted message about anger you can give a talk with the sound-bite “Don’t Choose to Lose.” This thesis or this main point would prompt the audience to ask themselves, “Why shouldn’t I lose my temper? In the movies everyone loses their temper- it looks like the thing to do! Why shouldn’t I?” We need to answer this “WHY” with our support or rationale. (I gave you some examples of “WHY” in Step 1.)
For an example of supporting our point, let’s look at the I Peter example again from Step 1. I told you that the main point I like to take out of this passage is, “You SHOULD watch out for evil desires!” I like to state this as “Watch what you let creep in your life!” This sound-bite raises the question “WHY?” Now remember- since we are preaching out of a passage here- you can’t give any ol’ reason that sounds good- you have to give the reasons in the passage. I give two reasons from the scripture: 1. This is all temporary (vs. 11) and 2. We’re being watched (vs. 12).
Once we answer the HOW or WHY, we need to provide stories, illustrations or examples to reinforce our point and our rationale. Don’t underestimate the power of a story. Sometimes, regardless of how hard we try, students won’t remember a single point we say, but they’ll remember our stories. Beware of a talk that is just principle after principle. Fill your talks with stories and examples to support your points.
At the end of my talk on the I Peter passage, I use a personal story to emphasize and support the second rationale, “We’re being watched!” I emphasize how our testimony or our actions speak loudly to the non-believers around us. I illustrate this with a story of when I was in high school in Biology and I stood up for Creationism, arguing against evolution. Then the following week, in the very same class, I got caught cheating on a test. I end this story by asking the audience, “Do you think that class remembers anything I said for or about Creationism? No . . . they don’t. But they remember me cheating. Be careful, you’re being watched.”
1. Select your point.
What is the one point you want to talk about?
What is this passage saying?
Do you want to give a “you should” talk or a “you can” talk?
2. State your point.
What is your sound-bite?
3. Support your point.
What is the answer to the HOW or WHY?
What stories, illustrations and examples can you give for each rationale?
Now that we know the three steps to developing a better talk, let’s look at the four essentials of effective talks.
FOUR ESSENTIALS OF EFFECTIVE TALKS
Essential #1: Realize You Ain’t Nuthin!
The world might think it sounds crazy to squash our self esteem before taking on a huge task like speaking in front of a large audience, but I assure you, we’re not killing our self esteem. We’re just realizing where it comes from.
Psalm 127:1 reads, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” This is true with anything we do, including speaking. God’s got to be the foundation of it.
Something detrimental can happen when we speak in front of an audience. Pride can kick in. When people are laughing at our stories, responding to our insights . . . we need to realize something. “Without Him, we ain’t nuthin!”
In the beginning of the book of Acts, Peter had a REALLY good day. He just finished preaching a sermon, A GREAT SERMON apparently, because 3,000 people gave their lives to Christ. Then he and John were walking along the road and he did an amazing miracle, he healed a crippled beggar. The people respond in amazement, but Peter did something really cool . . . check it out:
Acts 3:11-12 (NIV)
. . . all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon’s Colonnade.  When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?”
All the people were looking at Peter like he was the next Messiah. He had just preached a killer sermon and now he was healing people like it was nothing. Everyone stared in AWE! Everyone was like, “Peter, you are really something!” It would have been really easy for Peter to think, “I am something, huh!”
But instead Peter basically says, “Stop looking at me as if I did something. I didn’t do something!” (I can picture him pointing up to heaven) “HE did something!”
We need to do just as Peter did. We need to realize that we are nothing without Him. And when people see us- we should be pointing to Him.
Corrie ten Boom once said this about people coming up to her after she spoke. “People thank me so much and it used to worry me because I didn’t want to get a big head. So I began to collect those compliments like flowers. ‘Thank you,’ I’d say. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ Then at the end of the day I’d kneel down and I’d say, ‘Here You are Jesus, they’re all Yours.'”
Essential #2: Master the Story
I’ll never forget the feeling I had years ago as a youth worker when I first stood on the school’s gym floor on a Wednesday night in front of a couple hundred jr. high students. We were running an on-campus ministry reaching unchurched jr. highers, and this was our opportunity to share Christ with them. We had already done a bunch of fun activities, the students were bouncing off the walls, and we somehow got them all to sit down . . . and I was next! I remember thinking that there was no way I could ever grab their attention. Almost every one of them was fidgeting, talking with the person next to them, and wondering when they could just get up and leave!
After a quick prayer that went something like this, “HELP!” I walked out in front of them and started telling them a story. “About 2,000 years ago in the city of Jericho there was this short guy named Zach. Zach wasn’t very popular for one reason . . . he ripped people off all the time . . .”
Here I was sharing a story I had learned as a child on a flannel graph board from my 1st grade Sunday school teacher- and now over 200 noisy, restless little pubescents were quiet and listening! WHY? Because I was telling a story.
I learned from the best. Jesus used stories as teaching tools in a variety of different situations. He used them as a teaching tool to large crowds:
Luke 8:4-5 (NIV)
While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable:  “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed . . .”
He used them to confront people:
Luke 7:39-41 (NIV)
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is–that she is a sinner.”
 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
 “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty . . .
He used them to answer questions:
Luke 10:29-30 (NIV)
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers . . .”
He used them to explain himself:
Luke 15:2-4 (NIV)
But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
 Then Jesus told them this parable:  “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?
Our speaking needs to include stories, analogies, quotes, and/or examples. These are essential. Really great speakers are master storytellers.
Where do we get these stories. Glad you asked . . . and that brings us to our third essential.
Essential #3: Become a Master-note-taker
In order for us to be story tellers, we need stories to tell! Where do we get stories? There are three main resources we can use to find stories and illustrations.
The first place is by far the best:
1) Stories from your own life. I have a place in my daily planner where I write down quotes or story ideas right after they happen. In the last 5 years I have become a mad story collector! I am now constantly on the look-out for the next funny example, the next analogy I can use to illustrate a point. If my children say something funny, I write it down. Become a collector of your own stories- because your own stories are the most powerful.
2) Other people’s stories. When you’re reading a book, watching a movie, or browsing the internet, write down stories as you come upon them. If you were to turn to the front page of any of my dad’s books you would see a list of illustrations scribbled on that page. He writes the topic, a word or two of description and the page # of that particular illustration. He eventually developed a catalogue of all those references from all his books so he could easily find them later.
I have a folder on my hard drive labeled “Illustrations.” This folder is where I put every story I collect from the web, the paper, books I read . . . you name it.
3) Stories specifically from messages you hear. Anytime I listen to a speaker at a conference I take three or four pages of notes. I write down every example, and the highlights of every story I hear. When I get home, I enter these into my computer database for ready reference.
When we use someone else’s stories, we need to be sure to credit them. Sometimes we don’t know the originator, and that’s okay. We just don’t need to claim them as our own. There’s nothing worse than a preacher who stands up and says, “Last week I was playing baseball with my son and . . .” and then he tells a story out of Swindal’s new book as if it was his. There is a word for that. It’s called LYING! The effectiveness of the story doesn’t diminish when we say, “I just read a story about . . .” or “Swindal writes in his new book about a time when he went to play baseball with his son . . .”
There is a certain story that I frequently tell to audiences across the nation about something I did when I was in high school. I can count on one hand the amount of times a student HASN’T come up to me and asked, “Was that story really true?” or “That didn’t really happen to you, did it?” What would I say if the story wasn’t true? Would I tell the truth and say, “No, I was just using the story.” Then the kid walks away thinking, “I wonder what else he said that WASN’T TRUE!” It’s a wonderful thing to be believed by people. Credit your sources.
So be quick with your pen and paper because your next great illustration might stumble across your eyeballs, ears or fingertips today!
Essential #4: Master Your Bookends
The most important two minutes of our talk are our first minute and our last minute. If you just glazed over that last sentence, read it again. The most important two minutes of our talk are our bookends- our beginning and our end. People (students especially) decide whether or not to listen to us in the first minute of our talk. Jr. Highers . . . 30 seconds! We’ve got anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute to answer the following question in any audience’s mind, “Why should I listen to this person?” Don’t blow it.
When we stand up to address an audience, we need to hook ’em. Then real ’em in for the rest of the talk. A story is a strong way to begin, simply because people like to hear the end of a story. “I was standing at the convenient store counter on a snowy night last February when a guy walks in, pulls out a gun and puts it in my face!” If our story doesn’t have an exciting beginning, start with the action, then go back to the beginning to give the back story. “I heard my daughter scream. By the time I got to her I saw her lying on the ground unconscious. It all started on this family vacation to Arizona. We all piled in the car and . . .” Regardless of how we do it, grab them in the beginning.
If our beginning was great and our entire talk was fabulous, but we end on a weak note . . . they might just remember the whole talk being weak! Do you remember James Cameron’s movie THE ABYSS? What a great film . . . with a lousy ending. Most people will tell you that it is a lame film. And they’re right- because it had a lame ending. A disappointing ending also makes a disappointing talk.
Don’t end a talk with, “and . . . I guess that’s it . . . I mean . . . yeah . . . so . . . that’s all! Let’s pray!” We need to practice our ending over and over again. Get a story that wraps up the entire talk. Find a quote that is powerful. Say the quote, and close the talk with a “let’s pray.” Most of the time it’s better to just end with the quote and don’t explain it. So many speakers make the mistake of assuming that their audience is compiled of a bunch of morons. They end with a magnificent quote or story, then they go and redundantly explain it. “You see, sometimes we all feel like we’re on that beach and those are OUR footprints. We might endure tough times, and it’s as if Jesus is just saying ‘hop on!’ Wouldn’t you like to just hop on Jesus?” Don’t ruin the cool poem with a dumb explanation. The poem’s point is clear.
Our entire talk is important. We want to develop a talk that will keep their attention throughout. But we need to rehearse our beginning and our ending more than any other part of the talk. That’s where they decide to listen, and where they decide if they liked what they heard.
Well . . . I guess that’s it. I mean . . . yeah! Good luck with your talks . . . and all.
If you enjoyed this article from Jonathan McKee, you’ll love his book, 10-Minute Talks: 24 Messages Your Students Will Love. This book contains “ready-made” talks and comes with a free supplemental CD with transcripts of every talk and a complete small group curriculum.
(Click here for that book at a discounted price)
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.