Communicating with Clarity- USING THE STORY

Posted on: 06/1/11 1:36 PM | by Jonathan McKee

I asked the question in yesterday’s blog and heard some great feedback from a bunch of you. “How many minutes will kids actually listen?”

Many of you indicated that you keep talks short.  Others incorporate small group time so that young people can process and discuss what they’ve learned. Some of you try to change it up to kill any monotony. Still, some seem to be resisting short teaching time, in fear of “watering down” the message.

I guess that’s really the big dilemma: I want to keep it short enough to be memorable and clear, yet not so short that we lose clarity and depth.

It seems that most of us would agree with seeking “clarity” in our communication. No one would complain if kids walked out with a clear understanding of scriptural truth. The question is, What methodology best accomplishes that goal?

Or let’s think about it in terms that many youth workers can relate to. 23 kids are gathered in the small junior high room in the church basement on a Wednesday evening. Several wiry 6th grade boys roll on the floor wrestling, while a handful of older boys run the foosball table. Across the room a gathering of 8th grade girls whisper and giggle with each other. Adult volunteers are interacting with many of the kids. A few sit alone. Soon, a youth worker announces, “Come on everyone, let’s bring it together.”And after some shuffling and herding, the students are gathered into a small audience facing the front of the room. Announcements, maybe games… but sooner or later, regardless of format, we share a message of truth.
We’ve got a message to communicate, we’ve got a captive audience… how can we communicate that message to young people most effectively?

Is there one answer?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. (Yes, these thoughts are nothing new. This is the reason I wrote the book, 10-Minute Talks. I’ve noticed this glaring need for “clarity” in communication for a while now.) As promised, this week I’m going to blog some of my thoughts about principles that might help ministries communicate better to a generation with a short attention span. Here’re some of the principles I’m going to cover in the next few days:


I want to start by talking about the power of the story.

I’ve always loved stories. As a kid I loved bedtime stories. Around the campfire my brother and I loved it when my dad told scary stories. Whenever he would finish, we’d yell, “Another one! Another one!”

When’s the last time someone yelled that when you finished your talk?

Stories are powerful.

I learned the power of a story a little over 15 years ago when I started speaking in the public school. By God’s grace, a campus ministry I was a part of started bringing out a couple hundred kids weekly. These weren’t church kids by any means, and the last thing on their mind was sitting down and listening to a sermon. Most of them were there for basketball, friends and food. But every week I was determined to share some truth with them. So I began ‘cutting my teeth’ at the skill of speaking. (If you ever wanna learn how to communicate to young people, try speaking to 200+ kids that don’t want to be preached to, sitting in school bleachers.) I quickly learned what works and what doesn’t.

Some of the biggest lessons I learned:
1. You’ve got about 30 seconds to grab their attention, then the rest of the time to keep it.
2. Stories work.
3. Humor is a plus.

Fast forward to a few months ago when I stood in front of a few thousand kids in a school auditorium. Guess what three principles I still use? (yep, same three)

I’ve seen a lot of speakers with a lot of gimmicks. I’ve seen speakers that required all kinds of technology, PowerPoint and props. Some of these tools can be very effective. But when I speak, I want one thing: a microphone that works (usually one with a cord- the chances of it working increase greatly). Why? A simple fact: I’ve got stories, and kids love hearing stories.

Using stories is nothing new. Do I even need to bring up Jesus’ use of stories? From what we read in the Gospels, Jesus was a master communicator. Secular philosophers even attest to his effective teaching style. His use of parables not only used stories, but they punched the audience in the gut with convicting truths that they needed to hear. Stories can help us communicate truth with clarity.

To this day, I still use talks that are simply stories with a wrap up.

If you peek at the left hand column of this blog, you’ll see the book I mentioned earlier titled, 10-Minute Talks (you can actually click on the book and read one of the talks in its entirety including the small group questions I provide). This book is a collection of a bunch of talks that I’ve used over the years with great results. Why? They are all stories with one point and one scripture passage. If you read those talks, I think you’ll find that they are simple, clear… and far from watered down.

Don’t underestimate the power of a story.

A few years ago a Youth for Christ group flew me out to speak to a bunch of middle school students at an all night event. When I was introduced, I was staring at an unruly crowd of 1400 middle school students who made two things clear. 1. They were ready for a night of fun. 2. They didn’t want to be sitting in an auditorium listening to me. When they handed me the microphone, a kid in the front row literally said, “Who the Hell are you?” No one else in the room heard, because they were all involved in their own conversations.

I reminded God that I needed him (okay, yes, I reminded me), and then I began telling a story.

“When I was 18-years old, I gave my friend $12,000 dollars. Actually, it didn’t start that way. I had to almost kill him first… but more on that in a minute. It started with me and four of my friends showing up to his house at 6 o’clock in the morning to celebrate his birthday. His mom let us upstairs into his room, and…”

Within 30 seconds, they were hooked.

About 25 minutes later I gave an invitation and over 100 kids came forward and received Christ.

I didn’t have a podium on stage. No PowerPoint. No notes. Here was my outline:
– Greg story
– House on the rock- Matthew 7
– What is your foundation?
– Invitation

Yes, you better believe I worked hard on nailing those transitions between each of those points. But the fact remains, that talk was simply one story, one scripture, communicating one simple point.

Don’t underestimate the power of a story.

Let’s hear from you! Comment: How have stories helped you communicate? Have you ever tried using just one story, one scripture, communicating one clear point? How do stories help communicate with clarity, without sacrificing depth?

9 Replies to “Communicating with Clarity- USING THE STORY”

  1. this sounds a lot like the talk I heard Andy Stanley give at the Drive Conference this year. It pushed me to stop worrying about filling time and start focusing on communicating (with clarity) the message God had laid on my heart. It’s completely changed the way I communicate to my students…and it’s made a huge difference. Students are remembering things more from week to week and even passing main points from teachings onto friends via facebook. This blog topic is awesome and I’d recommend Andy’s book “Communicating for a Change” to any youth pastor, teacher, communicator, etc. who has a passion for equipping students to define themselves by who God created them to be instead of who our world tells them they should be.

  2. I agree that stories are powerful. It is funny that stories, hooks, and humor are all important in one-on-one conversation too. I feel like most of the rules for normal conversation, work in public speaking situations also. After all, the best public speakers make you feel like they are talking directly to you, not an audience of 100.

  3. Stories are powerful, just listenend to NT on cd in my car this morning. Jesus telling parables…powerful stuff. I read widely in all kinds of genres (except Sci-fi) for two reasons: 1) I love to read and 2) I always need more stories. Telling stories well is a lot of work and requires practice, practice, practice and hopefully not all of that practice is happening in front of your audience. My greatest challenge is thinking of the perfect story in the wee hours of the morning just hours before I am to deliver. Never enough time to work the story into the message for that day!

  4. I have used this technique in my 9 years teacing adults ESL and GED Reading. One of our textbook authors came to give us a workshop, snd she validated this for me by telling us stories are a great way to connect, and to get your message across. Here is the start of one of mine. “It was a usual day at the bank where my sister works, and all of a sudden, undercover FBI officers storm into the lobby with guns drawn. Seems that the lady at the teller line wasn’t who they thought she was…” The lesson is about identity theft, and it gets the point across beautifully! Now what is the ending of your story?

  5. Unsolicited plug, but I bought Jonathan’s 10 Minute Talks book and it has been an incredible tool. Not only has it given me some material, but his talks have been a great template for other stories I use to get through to my kids.

  6. I have also found stories to be a big part of speaking because I am lousy when I try to speak from notes, and because the stories usually happened to me, I remember them and don’t need to look down at notes while I am talking.

  7. Excellent point! Stories are crucial to our very make up. Stories are the glue that keeps our teens glued to movie or show. I find that stories that relate to the topic from my personal experience to be the most valuable. They connect me to the audience. As a young youth pastor, the professional story books were my crutch. Indeed they were entertaining and humorous. But to tell the story of me driving a car through a library wall as a middle school kid or how I embarrassed myself this last week and to tie that in with the truth being communicated will win out a borrowed classic any day.

  8. Whether it is teaching religious education to grades 7 in the local state school, speaking to our high schoolers in a youth ministry setting or preaching to our whole church on Sunday morning I rely heavily on stories and story telling.
    I particularly like re-telling bible stories in a way that gets people to engage. Using voices, sound effects, facial expressions and movement helps young people to see the reality of what the Word of God is saying. The people in the bible were real people with real emotions, with real doubts who experienced real surprise, shock, anger and fear.
    If you can get young people to laugh, cheer, arch up in anger, cry or be moved to complete silence by a bible story you’ve helped them move much closer to taking on board the message that is found within the story.
    I have found it’s about getting inside the heads of the people in the story and seeing the story as if you were living it for the first time. Like when those blokes lowered the crippled man in through the roof of the house Jesus was in. What were people thinking? What was the crippled man thinking? What was the owner of the house thinking? You can have a whole lot of fun exploring those possibilities.
    What you don’t want to do is have exciting life experience stories and then the “boring bible bit”. We need to strive to show that the bible is just as interesting if not more interesting than the time I was attacked and chased by an emu…but that’s another story.

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