You simply can never connect with all types of students.
Recently, I was giving a talk to middle schoolers and halfway through my talk, I realized the students weren’t feeling or connecting with what I was teaching. There isn’t a more terrifying feeling for a youth pastor. I hate this feeling because you feel like a failure. You look out to your audience, and you see bored students. Not good.
Don’t you hate that moment when you are speaking and you look out into the crowd and you see many students getting squirrely?
Right when you step off stage, you immediately ask yourself, “Why and how did I lose them?”
You go through your mental checklist:
- I prayed.
- I prepared.
- I preached the Scriptures.
So where did I go wrong?
For me, I hate speaking, but I know it is essential, which is why I am so committed to it. Speaking is a lot of work. I have been speaking to teenagers for 10 years, and I still get super nervous every time. It doesn’t matter the group size or speaking environment, I still feel like I am going to puke up my breakfast every time I speak to teenagers.
I have discovered it doesn’t matter how many times you have communicated to students or how good you are—you simply can never connect with all types of students. Some students will just not like your communication style, and that is OK. I have read public speaking books, studied rhetoric and great orators, taken two years of homiletics and youth ministry communication classes, and have had many seminarians and ministry friends tear my youth group talks to shreds. Bottom line: Speaking to teens never gets easier, and as youth ministry communicators, we always have to be refining our speaking skillz.
Here are a few tips on how to tweak your communication skillz:
- Invite a trusted leader to evaluate your talks. The aim is to get a trusted leader to give you helpful and constructive feedback. The keyword is “trusted.” You have to value this person’s perspective and really like this person because they will speak the truth in love, and it will hurt to hear where and how your talk bombed. Plus, this evaluator will keep you humble and honest.
- Always keep it simple and short. You have to keep your language clear and memorable. When your talk bombs, don’t abandon your teaching method. A lot of the time, when your talk bombs it is a pathos problem, not a method problem. I found that nine out of 10 times, my talks are way too long. I tend to pack too many fun-filled illustrations or spend too much time unpacking theology—which, as a result, makes my talks feel long. If you communicate to middle schoolers, keep your talks between 12-15 minutes. If you communicate to high school students, keep your talks around 18-25 minutes. I have never heard a student say, “I really wish the speaker would have spoken longer.”
- Get more teachers in the youth ministry teaching rotation. Getting more diverse voices in the rotation will help meet the needs of all the students in the crowd. Many students are not just going to connect with one speaker. In my previous youth group, one of my students’ favorite things was when I let different speakers communicate. Getting more voices on the stage not only helps you as a speaker grow, but also exposes your students to different styles, experiences and angles on the Scriptures.
- Get back up there ASAP. Right when you bomb a youth group talk, try to communicate again as soon as possible. It is extremely helpful to learn from your last speaking failure and implement your learnings immediately. During my pilot training, my flight instructor always made me immediately redo any piloting error I made. The hope was so to undo any bad flying habits by overdoing the right flying habits. Sometimes I spent two hours practicing slow speed stalls because my instructor wanted me to master my previous failures. When you fail, you become fearful. So in order to eliminate the fear of your failure, you have to keep practicing. The same thing is true when you fail at speaking. The more reps you can get, the better speaker you will become. It is about getting right back up right when you bomb a sermon. Any youth communicator has to always keep repeating this speaking process: Pray, prepare, speak and reflect—and then iterate again and again and again.
And, finally, one of the most powerful realizations I have made about speaking is that when I don’t need anything (laughs, acceptance, applause or affirmation) from my audience, I am in a great place to actually start helping my audience. My focus turns from not trying to please “them” (students) to trying to please Him. Remember: We as youth communicators, we are not alone up there—so every time we step on stage, we give it our best shot.
What are some techniques you do after you bomb a youth group talk? Any stories are welcome. I know I cannot be alone in train-wrecking many youth group talks. Any helpful practices for becoming a better youth communicator?