Speaking to young people can be both fun and impactful. But where do you begin? Below is a simple plan that can help you effectively speak truth into the lives of students. In two previous posts, I offered nine tips for public speaking and an interview with my father on how he researches and writes messages. This post is meant to provide a specific plan for creating youth talks. While there are many other ways to organize a talk, below is a simple approach that often works for me:
- Introduction. It is important to start a message strong and grab attention quickly. It is no secret that young people often have short attention spans and tend to make quick decisions about whether they want to listen or not. Beginning with a story, quote, statistic, or joke (if natural and appropriate) can set the pace for the entire talk. Also, state your thesis so students know the main idea you are aiming to get across. You don’t need to do this formally such as, “My thesis is…” But just let students know the point of your talk.
- Why does it matter? After grabbing attention and introducing the subject, it is important to do a couple things. First, define any key terms you will be using in your talk. For instance, if you are talking about evolution, be sure to explain exactly what you mean. It is critical to define terms such as truth, sex, marriage, and even God. Don’t assume your audience understands. Second, clear away any reservations in your audience. For instance, when I speak on homosexuality or same-sex marriage as a Christian, I know many in the audience already assume I am hateful, bigoted, and intolerant. Thus, I begin with a story about how important it is be compassionate and willing to listen to those with different views. Ask yourself this question: What barriers are in the mind of my audience that may prevent them from hearing me? And then try to best clear them away.
- Body of the talk. This section is the “meat” of the talk. Typically I try to make 3-5 points and support them with statistics, stories, anecdotes, Scripture, or expert testimony. Ask yourself a few questions at this stage. First, does each point advance my thesis? Second, is each point sufficiently developed and defended? Third, is this point interesting to the audience? Always ask yourself if you are communicating the point in a way that captivates and engages the audience.
- Answer objections. At this stage, be sure to address any key objections that may be lingering in the minds of hearers. This can be done after each point in the body of your talk, or combined at the end. You don’t need to answer every objection. In fact, it is valuable to let the audience know that there are other objections you simply don’t have time to address. This develops trust with the audience and invites them to research the topic further. And be sure to state any objection fairly—don’t set up a straw man.
- Conclusion. Here is one of the simplest and best tips for speaking I have ever heard: “Tell them where you are going to go, go there, and then tell them where you went.” Now that you have given your introduction and body, the key is to “tell them where you went.” Simply sum up your main idea and supporting points. Again, you don’t have to do this formally, but just be sure you reinforce the key takeaway from your talk. Also, when possible, provide a practical takeaway. For instance, in my talk on evolution, I emphasize that humans are not a cosmic accident, but the intentional creation of a personal God. Thus, humans have intrinsic value and we should treat them as so. And in my talk on the lies of pornography, I emphasize God’s grace and practical steps people can take to experience healing.
Speaking to students is certainly not the only way to have an impact. Discipleship, mentoring, encouragement, leading small groups, coaching, writing, prayer, are also critical components. But speaking is one important way of positively influencing students. If God has given you the heart and opportunity to speak, then go for it. I pray that God will equip you with his grace so you can speak the truth in love.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog at seanmcdowell.org.