How to Plan and Deliver Creative Youth Talks

How to Plan and Deliver Creative Youth Talks
Jim Burns

When I was fresh out of seminary, my first Sunday school class had four high school students—three girls and one guy. They were sitting in a room that would comfortably seat 200 people. As I stumbled through my lesson, one girl read a book while another girl sat on the lap of the only guy in the class and giggled the entire class time. Marcia was the only one actually listening to me, and after the class she told me her family was moving next week! After that “speaking engagement” I seriously questioned my call to ever get in front of an audience again.

However, if we are going to work with kids we will have to speak to them. It doesn’t always have to be a disastrous experience. Effective speaking to youth is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. That’s why I’m convinced that there are not very many excellent youth speakers: Few are willing to commit the time and energy it takes to move a youth audience.

This chapter is not written to cause a false sense of guilt. I’m well aware of the horror of preparing for three talks to the same youth group each and every week. When my preaching professor in seminary challenged us to study one hour for every minute we were in the pulpit or classroom, I believed him—until I completed my first week of youth ministry at my church. In this chapter I want to cover the basics of good youth speaking and how to put together quality material in a shortened amount of time. I also want to look at the most important ingredients of effective speaking—more important than the words that come out of your mouth.

Excellence Versus Perfectionism
A good youth speaker must be committed to excellence, yet not be a perfectionist. People who work in the church and give a few talks a week along with all the other responsibilities of youth work cannot afford to give the “perfect message.” There simply isn’t enough time.

However, a busy schedule is not an excuse for giving boring messages. Tony Campolo says, “Poor preaching is responsible for a lot of poor presentations of the gospel and the loss of a host of opportunities to lead people into the Kingdom of God.”

Commitment to excellence in speaking means taking the time to honor your students with preparation. When a speaker stands before a group of people and talks for any length of time, he or she has the rare privilege of having people actually listen to what he or she has to say. If the presentation has not been well thought out or put together, then the speaker is actually robbing the listeners of precious time that they could be using for something else.

I’m not very comfortable with the word “speaker” because it brings images in my mind of a dynamic, good-looking, powerful, motivating, and incredibly articulate person moving an audience on the sheer beauty of the presentation. We would all be looking for new jobs, including most of the fathers of our faith, if this were the job description for a good speaker. I’m more comfortable with the word “communicator” because its emphasis is less on speaking and more on the total atmosphere of getting the message across.

Studies show us that in the art of good communication and persuasion your attitude is much more important than your words.

We’ve all sat through mediocre speaker presentations but have been moved by the integrity of the person. There are times when I have sat through a sermon and been moved to tears because of the passion or enthusiasm of the speaker rather than the words. If you want to speak to kids effectively, you’ll need to live what you teach and get across the fact that you genuinely care for them. Your attitude is the deciding factor on whether someone will listen to you or just tune you out.

Young people respond much greater to the nonverbal message than the verbal presentation. I was speaking at a major denomina¬tion’s youth gathering in which the two keynote speakers had been placed back-to-back. A professor was to give a 45-minute address, then one song, then me. Needless to say, it was a pathetic way to place the speakers. The professor stood to address an overflow crowd in this great convention center. He picked up his 14 pages of nicely typed notes and read his entire speech. He never noticed the toilet paper rolls flying from the balcony. As he neared his conclu¬sion, at least half of the kids were talking and many were walking around the auditorium. I’m convinced that some of the kids didn’t even notice when he sat down. Eye contact is as important as your words.

If you’re wondering what happened to me that day, I turned my 45-minute “address” into a shortened 20-minute Scripture story with one humorous point and one serious point. I’m still not sure if their ovation was for my message or for the fact that they wanted to leave the convention center for recreation time.

The nonverbal message of eye contact, a smile, a tear, or even your posture is what makes the difference between a good speaker and a mediocre speaker. Using notes is fine, but know your mate¬rial well enough to seldom look at your notes. And when you speak with kids, spend as little time behind the pulpit as possible. Any¬thing between you and your audience will get in the way of good communication.

Ethos, Pathos, and Logos
There are three Greek words that help us understand the importance of our attitude in the world of communicating to young people: ethos, pathos, and logos.

Every talk to a young person should have all three of these elements within the speech. Ethos is the credibility factor. The kids will be asking the question “Can I trust you?” Our word “ethics” comes from ethos. Are we ethical people? Do we believe what we are urging the young people to believe? Is there evidence in our life and presentation that we can be trusted?

The second element is pathos. This word connotes empathy. Kids are asking the question “Do you really care for me?” “Do you understand me?” In order to speak effectively to kids we must earn the right to be heard. I’ve noticed that in our youth group, if I’ve met with a person that week and he senses that I care, he will sit closer to the front. When we speak to our people they must know that we love them and that we feel with them.

The third element of attitude communication is logos or the Word. If the kids know we are sincere and that we care, then we can give them the truth. The proclamation of the Word is essential, but remember that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Make sure that as you present the Word, you do so on a level which the young people understand. We’ve got to scratch where they itch. I would sum up these three words ethos, pathos, and logos with this simple sentence: Always be yourself always love your audience, and always do your homework.

Organizing Your Message
The most important piece of advice I can give for preparing a message is to keep it simple. Simplicity is the key factor in a good presentation. I believe the reason we remember the words of Jesus so well is because they are simple. Jesus used short phrases. He spoke to the common person. The Sermon on the Mount is brilliant in its simplicity.

The second piece of advice is to keep it short. Just because the Sunday school class goes for an hour, this doesn’t mean that you need to speak for the entire hour. Because of the onslaught of media in the lives of teenagers, their average attention span is somewhere around ten minutes.

The Big Idea
When you prepare a message you will need to know exactly what you want to get across to your audience. Many people give talks to young people with only a vague idea of what the theme of their message really is. Write down in as few words as possible your Big Idea. You’ll want to keep it simple and straightforward. Here are two illustrations: The call to Christ is the call to serve and You are what you think. Your Big Ideas could be a little longer than these two, but you do want your audience to remember the main idea. Here is an example of a longer Big Idea: The decisions you make today will affect you the rest of your life.

Once you’ve developed your Big Idea or theme, you want to look at the body of your talk. The body will consist of an intro¬duction to the Big Idea, main point(s) surrounding the Big Idea, application, and conclusion.

The introduction of any talk is the most important. All of your audience is not eager to listen to your every word. They are coming to the youth group with other things on their mind. Some have had a knock-down-drag-out fight with their family; others are exhausted from lack of sleep; some are coming to the meeting because of a cute potential date; still others aren’t sure you have anything worthwhile to say. Your introduction should be a real attention-grabber. You will need to very quickly (in the first 30 seconds) help them make the decision to listen to what you have to say. You may give them a startling statistic, nagging question, or interesting quote or story in order to create a curiosity in them. Whatever you choose, vary your method and make it interesting. Convince them in the first 30 seconds that they need to put away the other agenda on their mind and listen to you. In your introduction you will want to introduce the Big Idea.

After the introduction you can choose to surround the Big Idea with a main point (or points). For young people, the more points you have the more confusing the message may become. Make sure that the main point explains in greater detail the Big Idea. The main point will usually include a Scripture, an illustration, and an explanation. The real job of the main body is to expound on the Big Idea. We make a mistake by drowning kids with too many points.

Every talk should have an application. This is what I like to call the “so what?” of the talk. We must give the young people an opportunity to respond. If you are talking about the fact that “the call to Christ is the call to serve,” then after the talk have sign-ups for the next mission and service project. Truly effective communi¬cation brings results.

The Home Stretch
The conclusion of the talk is what the young people will really remember. That’s why I like to end with my most powerful and moving illustration that points back to the Big Idea. Some speech teachers tell us that this is where we should give our “haymaker” illustration. A few rules to go by in the conclusion: If you say “in conclusion,” mean it! We’ve all experienced the time when the speaker said “now in closing” and then went on for another 15 minutes. Most of the audience went home in their mind imme¬diately after the “first conclusion.” Another vital principle (often broken by pastors) is to conclude on time. If you have announced that the meeting is to be finished at a set time, then end at that time, Kids will get fidgety and tune you out because they had committed to a certain amount of time. They have other agendas on their mind, such as homework, parents picking them up, a date, or other things. My suggestion is to go shorter rather than longer. Have them asking for more, not looking at their watch wondering when the message will be finished.

Opening Illustration

The Big Idea
What is the theme of your message? (One sentence; keep it short and straightforward.)

You will win them or lose them in the first 30 seconds.
You will need an attention-grabber.

Main Point(s)
What main point(s) will support the Big Idea?

So what? How does this apply to my life, and what can I do about it?

Most powerful illustration (the haymaker) that points back to the Big Idea.

What do you want them to remember?

Where to Find Material

The challenge of always giving the kids fresh material is ex¬tremely difficult. One of the mistakes that youth workers make is not developing a good enough resource system.
Listed below are a number of ideas on where to find material.

1. Draw from your life experience. Every day you experience events that may give meaning to a future message. Make a habit of carrying a notebook to jot down potential ideas. You’ll receive illustrations and ideas from conversations, reading, people-watch¬ing, TV, newspapers, and a host of other sources.
2. Read books written for youth. One of the greatest sources of material is from the books of people who write to kids. They are usually outstanding youth communicators. They have spent years developing their material. Don’t plagiarize, but use their insight.
3. Read the Bible. My goal is to read the entire Bible in a devotional manner once a year. As I read the stories in Scripture, ideas pop into my mind that I want to share with students at a future time.
4. Listen to tapes. If you want to be a good communicator, listen to the tapes of the best speakers you know. Not only will you be inspired, but the tapes are a source of good material. You will want to be careful to develop your own style and not imitate the speaking style of your favorite communicator. Be yourself.
5. Talk with students. Continually ask the students what is important to them. I like to ask, “If you were going to speak to the group, what would you want to tell them?” Ask questions. Ask about their culture, their music, their likes and dislikes.
6. Read commentaries. In order to get better insight into God’s Word, read Bible commentaries. Many times the authors will give insights that you never saw before or an illustration that is perfect for your youth talk.

The above article, “How to Plan and Deliver Creative Youth Talks” was written by Jim Burns. The article was excerpted from chapter 19 in Burns’ book, The Youth Builder.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”