Communicating with Clarity- TALK SHORTER

Posted on: 06/6/11 1:40 PM | by Jonathan McKee

For the last week I’ve been talking about how to communicate to teenagers with clarity. On Day One I asked the question, “How many minutes will kids actually listen?” …quickly touching on the fact that we might need to make our talks a little shorter (check out the comments that day… some interesting reactions and discussion about that). Day Two I talked about “Communicating with Clarity-Using Stories.” Day Three I talked about “Communicating with Clarity- Only Use Gifted Communicators.”

Today I’m going to specifically address the subject that seemed to get a rise out of some… Keeping it Short. This time let’s really dissect the length of our talks.

Last week some people grew concerned when I mentioned the concept of using 10 minute messages. The comments said it clear:

“We shouldn’t cater to our culture’s short attention span.”

“We need to be teaching the youth that God is deserving of more attention than anything else in their lives.”

It seems that many us are worried that shorter messages mean “watered down” messages.

Is this true? If we shorten our talks, are we sacrificing depth? Or, as I asked in Day Two of this series, “How can we be memorable and clear, yet not so short that we lose clarity and depth?”

Let’s look at the length of some of the most famous and memorable speeches in history. For example, how many minutes was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech?

16 minutes.

How many minutes was Winston Churchhill’s famous “Never Give In” speech at Harrow School on October 29, 1941?

4 minutes, 12 seconds.

How about Abe Lincoln’s Gettysburg address on November 2, 1863? Surely this was a longer talk.

2 minutes.

For such powerful, memorable, life changing speeches… those seem pretty short.

Some might argue that these aren’t Biblical examples. Maybe sharing Biblical truth takes longer. The other day a person commented to Day One of this blog series, “The Bible isn’t made for 5 to 10 minute consumption.”


I admit, I wasn’t there when Jesus gave most of his talks, so all I have of his teaching is what I read in the Gospels. For example, in Luke 8 a large crowd gathered and he told them the parable of the sower. If you read that parable out loud, it will take less than a minute.

Like I said, I wasn’t there. Maybe that was only part of a much larger talk to that crowd. Or maybe he just told that story. Either way, the only thing that Luke wrote down was that short little story. The memorable part of that talk was one story, telling one powerful point.

In Luke 10 a man asked Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Wow. That’s a big question, right? We wouldn’t want to water it down with a short answer.

Jesus answered with a question. “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”

The man answers with the greatest commandment. Jesus basically responds, “Correctamundo!”

But the man wants a little more details, so he asks, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answered the question with another story. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers…” Again, this story takes about a minute to tell. If you read all of Luke 10, this whole interaction takes about a minute or two. Then, off to another village.

Has anyone ever accused Jesus’ one or two minute response of being “watered down?”

Far from it.

In a simple one-minute-story Jesus hits his audience hard with a point that would never be forgotten. Not only was his story memorable and powerful… he made the most despicable sinner imaginable the hero of the story (imagine telling that story in church today and making Lady Gaga the hero).

Deep? Yes.

Short? About one minute.

The fact is this: the Gospel writers frequently record Jesus talking to people in short, memorable stories. Maybe Jesus was on to something.

My point is simply this: Why say something in 25 minutes when you could say it in one minute?

Any questions?

13 Replies to “Communicating with Clarity- TALK SHORTER”

  1. Brevity is a good skill. The problem is that people expect you to fill up a certain amount of time. If given 20min, and a person fills up 10, people think the speaker was unprepared. I think being short is great. I have listened to several 30min speeches that only had 5min of information.

  2. Well since some of my comments are quoted here I figured I should stay involved in the conversation! Jonathan would you say that there’s a difference between the context of the Jesus examples you give and the context of most modern youth ministry? Most of the examples are conversations that Jesus has, and yeah in a conversation you definitely don’t want to monologue for 20+ minutes! But I’ve got to think that Jesus also had extended times with the disciples where He wasn’t just tossing out incredible one or two line points but was showing them who He was in the Scriptures and teaching them how that should change their lives. Actually we see two big examples of this IN Scripture, I’m thinking Sermon on the Mount and then the conversation on the Road to Emmaus where Jesus talks with his companions for the entire 7 mile (I think that’s how long it was) walk and shows them in all the Scriptures who He is.

    So by no means am I saying that there can’t be a useful 5 or 10 minute talk, but even using Jesus as our example I think you have to at least question whether a ministry or minister that exclusively uses 5 to 10 minute talks is doing an adequate job teaching their students the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) right?

    I guess it’s just my instinct that a book with thousands of pages and tens of thousands of verses in it can’t be adequately taught in 10 minute chunks of time once a week. Yeah you can get the big picture of it, but at that point are you passing along moral platitudes instead of Biblical truth? Then I guess there’s the larger question of whether that’s what most youth ministries main focus should be.

    Anyway don’t want to come on too aggressive here, appreciate your ministry greatly Jonathan, I just grew up in Church Youth programs with no depth and was worse off for it. I didn’t learn theology until I was in college even though I grew up in Church and was a classic youth group kid! That’s what drives my ministry now, wanting to make sure I’m not robbing kids of the gloriousness (if that’s a word) of the “whole counsel of God.”

    Blessings brother!

  3. u could also say the upper room conversation in John. not to mention Peter’s sermon in Acts two and Paul’s sermon that put a kid to sleep in Acts.

    But there are too many different contexts to simply say that shorter is better. What do you do with an hour of sunday school, let kids mess around and then talk for the last ten minutes. then u have the contexts of large vs. small churches. growing up there were about 100 kids in my HS youth group and for sunday school we had a band play for a little bit and then my paster gave a sermon for about 30-40 mins. but now as a YM i have about 5-8 middle schoolers that i teach in a small church for sunday school. theres a whole lot more to consider than just the attention span of kids.

    Not to mention i think many church leaders would look down upon playing games for 40 mins and having a ten minute discussion during sunday school.

    Just puttin some thoughts out there

  4. As Jonathan stated in earlier posts very few of us have the ability to hold the attention of an audience of teens or adults effectively for an extended period of time. We may have the directive, we may have the time to fill but that does not mean we have the skill to pull it off to God’s glory. Games, discussion groups, prayer time, etc can and should be used as well to emphasize a lesson point.
    In my case when I find myself speaking to teens at length without a break it is usually because I am ill prepared and so I ramble to fill the time and in reality water down the point with many words. I am not the person God has gifted to week-in-and-week-out provide effective long speeches but He can and does use me to bring about one point in a short period of time that the teens will hear.
    Thanks Jonathan for this series and the website too!

  5. Ha… now that’s funny. I was wondering if someone would use the example of Paul “speaking so long that he put someone to sleep” as an example of why we SHOULD speak longer. LOL

    Great comments. I don’t mind the pushback, as long as you are hearing me clearly. I’m not saying that we should NEVER speak for over 10 minutes. The fact is… most people NEVER speak less than 30.

    I think it’s funny when people try to show me examples of when Jesus or Paul spoke long. Yes… I know those examples are there. But there are also examples of them speaking shorter. I think that there is a time and a place for each.

    I preached two Sundays ago and went 35 minutes. I’m just saying that there is a thought out there that we NEED to go 35 minutes. Not true. I see plenty of situations where a 10 minute story fits better, or a Sunday school class where a teacher facilitates discussion instead (with good small group questions- I’ll be getting to that this week), etc.

    I taught Sunday School last week to a group of parents. I talked for about 7 minutes, then turned it over to small group questions around a table. Then I talked for about 7 more then sent it to questions again. Then I did some large group feedback time… then wrapped up with a story. I filled 45 minutes total. No one was ever bored.

    Now here’s the difficult thing for some to hear. As we learn our gifting… those who aren’t strong communicators are the ones who REALLY need to learn to facilitate and use small group questions and other methods. Sadly… the ones that shouldn’t be doing long talks, often are the ones doing long talks. (But I already talked about that in detail in the previous blog about using gifted communicators).

    I hope this helps stimulate some thinking.

  6. I have conflicting thoughts about this subject. First, I agree that some people cannot hold the attention of teens for longer than 10-15 minutes. I also agree that there are times that we can say what we need to say in a shorter period of time.

    Now that I’ve gotten those thoughts out of the way, I mostly disagree with this. I’ve worked with teens for over 15 years & I don’t think their attention spans are as short as we think/say they are. We have to remember that 99% of all statistics are made up (I made up that statistic). If teens truly had such a short attention span, we would see shorter class periods at school & shorter school days.

    Why don’t we rely more on the power of God and less on a statistic? If you speak for 10 minutes, let God work through those 10 minutes. If you speak for 40, let God work through those 40. But whatever you do, use your time wisely & teach your teens what it looks like to live for God!

    All in all, you know your teens better than any of us do. You know what works for them. If it is working, keep doing it. If it isn’t, consider some of the suggestions that have been made here.

  7. I completely agree with Jonathan. I think that when we speak too long, we absolutely lose the attention of the students. I don’t think it waters anything down.

    I guess it comes down to what is the purpose of a sermon? Is it to disciple or is it to provoke thought to allow students to search for themselves? When I teach in a large group setting, it’s not necessarily for discipleship. It’s more for either evangelism or to get students thinking. Discipleship then comes later through small group times, one on one meetings, stuff like that and that’s where we really need to dig deeper.

    I think this is key for one main reason: in a large group setting, you need to take into account that there may be students there that are committed, growing followers of Christ, and there may be students there that have never heard of Jesus before. In a large group setting, your job as a speaker is to say something that can reach and impact both of those studetns and everyone in between. Then you use the small group and one on one times to dig deeper, because in those settings, you have a better chance to make an impact by knowing where every student is.

  8. I appreciate Jonathan’s comment regarding the Sunday School lesson. Short talks don’t mean ten minutes of talk/forty minutes of games. The examples in the post about Jesus’ “short talks” often demand a response, or some sort of processing. A good speaker will provide the necessary prompting for me to open up to what God has to say. A poor speaker will not trust God or me to learn anything that hasn’t come out of the mouth of the speaker.
    Many people have probably heard the quote attributed to Mark Twain, “I’m sorry for the length of this letter. I would have made it much shorter if I had the time.” Being concise takes time and effort. It is much easier to just talk until you finally get to what you want to say.

  9. My goal is to be the oldest youth worker in America…I’ve been in vocational youth work since 1978…just had my Beatles birthday…didn’t get converted til I was 26…anyway, I think the principle is good, but, as in most things, there is no cut and dried “rule.” With the biblical ignorance (I speak at 5-8 weeks of youth camp each summer) epidemic, to build context takes time. At camps I attempt to go through a book (2 Tim this summer) to show the students the necessity of context, that they can do it, and that “all scripture is profitable…” In camp context I typically speak for 45 minutes; depending on the size of the crowd sometimes interactively…and I keep getting asked back.I use a ton of the Word and treat the students with deep respect. And, sadly atypical, I spend a ton of time with them throughout the day. One of the sadder things I’ve learned over the years is the number of youth workers who don’t seem to like youth…And the number of camp speakers who are fantastic on the stage but rarely if ever hang with the campers…

  10. As usual, I agree with Jonathan. I have had pastors give a sermon for 30 minutes and said the same thing 10 different ways…something that could have been said in 5-10 minutes. One of my students even passed me a note once that said, “Didn’t he just say that, like twice already?”

    My goal at each meeting is to communicate one major truth, not the entire Bible–or even an entire book. And I feel that can be done in 10 minutes or less.

    Thanks, Jonathan, for all you do…and for challenging our thinking!

  11. I once heard someone say that whenever you speak, it should feel like 20 minutes. So, if you talk for 10 minutes and it feels like 20, that’s enough. But if you talk for 40 and it felt like 20 minutes, that’s good too.

  12. After reading your follow-up blog posts (and the more I read in Andy Stanley’s book, “Communicating for a Change”) I see a little more clearly about making a point clearly and concisely, quickly. The part I’m not sure about is how to be sure that the “main point” of the “short talk” isn’t something too cliche. Other than prayer, how can you determine if something is insightful enough? Also, I believe this message is really geared for people who “speak” or who “preach.” What about those of us who “teach” who try to employ discussions and activities in amongst the talk? Am I comparing apples and oranges here? I want to get this right so I can continue improving.

  13. Jonathan- good questions.

    As for your question about the MAIN POINT. I’d really encourage you to get Dr. Haddon Robinson’s book BIBLICAL PREACHING. That book takes you through the process of how to read scripture, discover what it’s teaching, and then teach it clearly (as it changes you, you share with others). It actually gives you passages you can work through and let’s you get a taste of the process.

    As for teaching… yes, I think teaching is a little bit different. With teaching, I frequently try to use interaction, discussion questions, etc. A great book on teaching is Howard Hendrix book TEACHING TO CHANGE LIVES.

    I hope that is a small help.

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