In the past seventeen years, I’ve given more talks than I can count in more states than I can seem to remember (senility is setting in) and in many dioceses and cities I can scarcely spell.
Truthfully, I think I still have yet to ever give a “great talk”. I’ve gotten close at times…certain occasions when I really felt the Spirit moving unimpededly. Most of the time, it’s a tug-of-war within my self, trying not to get in the way of God’s Spirit. My spirit is willing, but my flesh is weak. Perhaps I’m too hard on myself, perhaps not. Maybe you can relate.
So it’s with that background that when I’m (frequently) asked by Youth Ministers and Core Members, “What are your secrets when preparing a talk for teens?” that I respond, “No secrets…just the challenge to subdue myself and only let God out.”
There are, to be sure, no secrets. There are tips, sure. There are practical ideas that insure greater effectiveness and a longer lasting message. There are communication principles that seem to hold true regardless of region, age group, spiritual maturity level and environmental challenges, but there are no secrets.
The truth is that most talks fly or fail, sink or swim well before we ever open our mouths. Preparation is as (if not more) important than talk execution. I’m sure some people would disagree with me on that point, but it’s true. I’ve watched some of the most skilled presenters in the Church today crash and burn due to lack of preparation. Oh, it might not have been visible to the spectator, but it was obvious that the message didn’t penetrate. Likewise, I’ve seen some of the most self-conscious, nervous Core Members in the world – with proper preparation – give some of the most soul-challenging, life-altering talks I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. Preparation is as (if not more) important than talk execution.
I often find that it’s in sharing my failures – my incredibly numerous, amazingly painful and eternally humbling failures – that people are actually helped. As I share the following list of five things “not to do”, realize I’m reminding myself and I’m basing these off of mistakes I’ve made far too often in the past.
1. No bearings – we misjudge where the teens really are spiritually
Many times we lose teens before we ever “have them.” We throw out words they don’t know the meaning of and phrasing they couldn’t care less about. No matter how well-versed your group is catechetically, it helps to consider them as TSL students (Theology as a Second Language).
Now, this obviously doesn’t mean talk down to them nor does it mean treating them like idiots. It means recognizing that even though some might know the definition of a word, it doesn’t mean they comprehend the essence of it. You might have students who can define “dogma and doctrine” but have yet to surrender to the beauty of the Church’s authority. You might have teens who know the Church’s teaching on the Sacraments and the Eucharist but have no concept of what grace is, means or does.
I once had a Youth Minister stand in front of us and read straight out of the Catechism – paragraphs at a time – because they enraptured his soul so intensely. By the second line, I was already wondering if this exercise could be used to cure clinical insomniacs.
Solution: Really take advantage of that time prior to and following Life Nights – as well as other activities – to get to know teens on a more relational level, when they’re not looking for the million dollar answer during small groups. The better you know them, the more aware you’ll be of your vocabulary and the need to “translate.”
2. Poor preparation – More “talk prep” than prayer
Look at the percentage of time you spend preparing your “talking points” for a teaching, or rehearsing the content. Now, compare that to the time you spent praying about the talk…and not just about your delivery. Have you prayed for the teens who will be there, for the soil of their hearts to be tilled? Have you prayed for the other Core Members on the night? Have you prayed for the parents of the teens who will be waiting for them at home, that their hearts might reaffirm the truths of the Church that you are sharing? You get the idea.
If your time praying does not eclipse your time preparing and memorizing notes, we’re disordered. It’s not just about sharing the word of God (Scripture) but the Living Word of God – Jesus Christ. If we’re not intimately connected to Him in prayer, it’s probably not Him we’re sharing…it’s us.
Oh, and if we’re not praying than we are definitely not dialed into the Holy Spirit so, when things inevitably go wrong or teens disengage mid-talk, we won’t be equipped to discern what to do or how to adjust on the fly. Yikes.
Solution: Pray more than you do outlines or memorize. Consider a 2-1 ratio – pray twice as much as you “prep”.
3. Poor transitions – We’re unaware of the setup and handoff
Do you know what is happening immediately prior to your talk? I don’t mean what is scheduled to happen (on the Life Night outline) but how the room is responding to what is happening. Is there a skit and is it flopping? Was there a video and were the teens watching or talking through it? Has there been any prayer? Is the tone and mood of the room “up” or “down” prior to you and how will that affect how you begin?
How about what comes after your talk? Will there be small groups or large group or personal prayer time? How does your talk set up what comes next? Are you preparing their hearts for deep discussion or reflection? Is the desired mood and tone of the room to be “up” or “down” when you finish and are you prepared to get them there?
This is such a crucial point when preparing a talk and, often times, the one that is most overlooked. It’s easy to get so consumed with “what I have to say” that we forget the talk is one piece – one minor piece – to the overall puzzle that is catechesis.
Solution: Know your content well enough to be anxiety-free as the night begins. Be out greeting the teens. Participate in the Gather activities and opening prayer. Know what happens after your talk and be humble enough to hit a single if that is what the night necessitates. Not every talk needs to be a home run.
4. We’re too rigid – our message isn’t scalable
Is your talk a speech? If so, it’s time to change perspective. Often times, people prepare a talk like they would a speech. It contains everything in a specific order. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it can present difficulties on occasion.
What is the night is running long because a Gather activity took forever to get going? You now only have five minutes for a ten minute talk (speech) you prepared. Do you know where to cut it? Is it scalable – can you scale it down or beef it up, as needed?
What about if two teens are distracting others (and you) in the midst of your talk and you lose your place? If it’s a speech, it can be tricky to get back on track. What if the mood of the room is different than you anticipated (as we spoke about in #3), can you adjust to that on the fly without jumping from point to point or losing your emphasis?
Solution: Rather than preparing your entire talk as a speech, work off of key words and phrases. Write those key words and phrases on a large index card so if, God forbid, you lose your place – seeing that one word/phrase will trigger your next point. If you have to write out a speech – be sure to be able to outline it or boil it down to smaller points. Know those points well enough to eliminate points, if needed, without running your train of thought off the rails.
5. Not in a state of grace – sinners can’t lead sinners out of sin
When was the last time you went to confession? The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the greatest weapon and most untapped source of grace for any presenter (evangelist). Do we go forward to speak and teach in God’s name without being in a state of grace? That’s like walking into the operating room to perform surgery while blindfolded, with earplugs in and oven mitts on. We need to free ourselves from every sin weighing us down. We need to be grace-filled and free to boldly proclaim God’s truth without our humanity and pride getting in the way.
People trapped in sin cannot lead others trapped in sin out of sin.
Solution: If needed, get to the parish on Saturday (or early on Sunday) and reconcile with Christ in the Sacrament. It will make all the difference in this world and the next.
So, if we all follow these five reminders, our next talk will be perfect, right?
No, but it will go a lot further in both building the Kingdom and achieving our own sanctity.
I hope you go easier on yourself than I do on myself.
I pray that God goes easier on all of us than we deserve.
Approach every opportunity to speak as an awe-inspiring gift from God, that He would entrust such an incredible charge – proclaiming His good news – to people like us! That humility will take the talk to places we never could.