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Top Ten Bonehead Mistakes We Make
group magazine: May-June, 2011

A youth worker with a rich educational background in communications diagnoses the top mistakes that doom a message to the unending abyss of the “forgettable.”

by Jeremy Steele

Just call me “The Message Whisperer.” Or please don’t, because that’s embarrassing. But it’s amazing how often I’m meeting one-on-one with another youth pastor, giving him/her feedback on what was great and what wasn’t so great about their talk/sermon/diatribe/musing. In the midst of this rare calling I’ve noticed some common problems that seem to repeat from person to person. Many of these problems are unconscious, and that’s surprisingly great news. A little knowledge goes a long way.

So the simplest and best way to improve your communication ability is to video yourself and watch the tape with someone who will be brutally honest about how you can improve. Until that day comes, my Top 10 Mistakes will have to do…


If I have to listen to one more illustration about a kid sitting alone in a lunchroom, I think I’m going to melt into the floor. Over-played illustrations are just lazy. The average teenager’s life is brimming with great message illustrations—we just have to ask questions and pay attention to find them. When you force yourself to avoid your “go-to” illustrations you’ll force yourself to find more creative and engaging stories to illustrate your point. Freshness and surprise translate into making a better bridge between your truths and their world.

A paralogical metaphor has no resemblance between the idea and the image presented.

I spent four years getting a college degree in speech-writing and criticism, and the best advice I ever heard was from my brilliant teaching professor, Dr. Julie Gorman: “If you don’t know what you want to say well enough to say it in one sentence, you don’t know it well enough.” I’ve heard more talks than I can count that ended with me thinking: “Huh? What was that really about?”
If you want to grow in this area, you’ll need to target a goal for your talk. Here’s what I do… For each talk, I develop three one-sentence goals:

To Know—What do I want them to know?
2 To Feel—What do I want them to feel?
3 To Do—What do I want them to do?

I use these three goals like scalpels—they help me cut out irrelevant and distracting portions from my talk. (One other great piece of advice: buy and read Speaking to Teenagers by Doug Fields, because it’s incredible—just go to and click on Resources to find it.)


Even if it made everyone cry at camp, even if it just came out in the theaters, and even if you just saw it on the news, it’s a distraction if the illustration doesn’t clearly reinforce what you’re saying. Cool does not trump relevance. And even if it’s as deeply impacting as you think it is, your teenagers will only remember the one thing that had nothing to do with your topic.

How can you tell if your amazing illustration is actually a disconnect? If you spend more than a couple of minutes trying to figure out how to bend it so it makes sense with your talk, PUT YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR AND BACK AWAY SLOWLY.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Louis Giglio’s talk “How Great Is Our God”—the one with the planets and the cross-shaped molecule. Only once have I heard the person “channeling” that talk give Louis credit. Besides the obvious issues about the morality of “lifting” another’s message, you’ll almost never be as effective giving someone else’s talk as you will offering something that’s original.

There’s nothing wrong with using source material and even prefab talks from youth ministry resources, but find a way to make them your own. Change the order, illustrations, and wording so that it makes sense to you, and if you didn’t create the majority of it, let your kids know that.

Jargon is specialized language that’s not easily accessible by people who aren’t in the know. For example, words such as “fellowship,” “sanctification,” and even “brother” can make the uninitiated feel even more uninitiated. Sure, it might be important for them to learn what these words mean, but you have to keep in mind their starting point. If you use jargon, make sure you define what you mean. And use easily understood synonyms when possible (go to for help).

I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase so many times that your grey cells have it tattooed on them: “Webster’s defines the word as…” For example, “Webster’s defines the word fair as being free from bias, dishonesty or injustice.” What generally follows this tired and boring approach is a plain-word version of the same definition because the dictionary definition is rarely easily understood.

There are some groups (generally senior citizens) who respond with increased respect when you reference Webster, but teenagers simply aren’t in that camp. They would much rather hear you describe the word or concept in your words, or with a great story.

The unabridged Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists definitions for more than 450,000 words.


Your teenagers need to know where your talk is headed if they’re going to follow what you’re saying. There are lots of ways to build structure around your talk: Give it the old three-point treatment, or work through a scripture verse-by-verse, or give a chronological account of something that happened, for example.

The main imperative with structure is to help your kids know what you said, where you are now, and how to know when you have moved on. Once you’ve structured the talk, make sure you include some statement at the beginning to let them in on what that structure is going to be like. For example: “Now we are going to go back and look at this passage verse-by-verse so that we can see clearly what God is saying to us this morning.”

“E” is the most frequently used letter in the alphabet.

The practice of writing out every word you want to say and then delivering your message using that manuscript has two huge problems. First, almost everyone writes differently than they speak—so, when you read your talk it sounds like you’re…reading. Second, you can’t simply glance at a manuscript and maintain eye contact with your young people—your eyes will often be glued to the paper in front of you, or you’ll perpetually lose your place.
The solution? Outline your talk. Find a pattern that works best for you. Generally, an outline that includes your main points, statements that help you transition to the next point, and any wording that you want to get just right is enough.

Labeling is the practice of choosing specific words to refer to an idea or subject in a talk. When you keep these labels consistent you’ll help your teenagers to follow what you’re saying and where you’re going. For example, if you start your talk this way—“Today we are going to be talking about Justice…”—don’t subsitute “fair” or “right” for justice in the rest of the talk. Be consistent and you’ll increase your clarity. That’s because there are slight differences—and sometimes big difference—in meaning between words that seem like synonyms. The less clear you are on a word’s meaning, the more likely you’ll confuse your teenagers. Do the extra work to understand what you mean by the words you’re choosing.

Can you sense the lurking problem in this sentence? “If we simply wake up everyday and spend time seeking God first, that will become more easy because this is so important.” Sometimes when we replace nouns with pronouns such as “this,” “that,” “them,” and “those” we make the story or talk incomprehensible. This is one of those bad habits that people generally don’t know they practice. So what do you do? As I mentioned at the start of this article, video yourself and study how often your pronouns make your meaning foggy.

Jeremy Steele is a longtime youth pastor in Alabama and a frequent contributor to our online community at

Go to, then go to the May/June issue for two bonus “Honorable Mention” mistakes.

by Rick Lawrence

Even though the sermon is the quintessential cross-denominational ministry practice, and has been since Josh McDowell was in cloth diapers, I’ve never, ever published an article on sermon ideas or strategies in my 23 years as editor of GROUP. That is, until now (Jeremy Steele’s article). So why would the world’s most-read youth ministry resource completely ignore the world’s most-used teaching strategy?

Well there’s a mountain of research that discounts lecturing as an effective way to help people learn, especially young people. Life-change is almost always the result of an experience followed by some kind of debriefing.

So the reason you’ve never seen a GROUP article on youth messages before now is simple: Though they’re popular, they’re not all that effective and I’m a very stubborn person (ask my wife). Even so, I decided that Jeremy’s advice was well worth sharing in the pages of GROUP. But here’s my caveat: I believe there’s a much better way to engage teenagers than by lecturing to them. I thought I’d share with you an excerpt from the “marching orders” I give all our speakers at our Simply Youth Ministry Conference (…

Getting R.E.A.L. at SYMC
Transformation most often happens in experiential, conversational settings. That’s why we still believe in, and shamelessly promote, our “cheesy” acronym R.E.A.L. It stands for Relational, Experiential, Applicable, and Learner-based. At our Simply Youth Ministry Conference, our goal is to make sure that in addition to “leader talk,” the participants get to talk, too. A lot. When you lead in this way, you’ll feel more like a ringmaster than a lecturer—more like a jazz musician (no sheet music) than a classical musician (sheet music).

I mean, you get to enjoy having a strong voice, surrounded by strong voices. You’ll offer crucial leadership in a context where many people participate and add to the content of the presentation. The people who learn the most in any class are the teachers—because they first need to ingest what they’re teaching before they teach it. So what happens when people get immersed in experiences and talk about what they’re learning while they’re learning it? Well, real transformation takes place.

Here’s a short overview of our values...
R—Stands for Relational. People learn better, and retain more, when they’re learning in the context of a conversation instead of a lecture. The easy way to do this is to ask more questions and get people talking to each other in pairs or trios or tables or flocks or…whatever. Give them a great question to talk about, followed by feedback and debriefing, and you’ve just helped them own what they’re learning. The questions we aim for are those that actually serve as a catalyst for conversation—not questions that have a forgone answer, or those that merely serve to “set up” the speaker’s point, or those that require no thinking to answer.
E—Stands for Experiential. Every learning researcher agrees that experiences have way more power to teach than the merely written or spoken word. When you involve people in “direct” experiences—involving people in something that engages their senses—the chances of them never forgetting what you’re teaching go way, way up. Full engagement is the goal—tasting something or building something or destroying something or risking something. It could mean you ask them to “practice” what you just “preached.” The best experiences are simple, short, and memorable.
A—Stands for Applicable. Learning loses its value the farther away it gets from practical life application. My least favorite (but often used) teaching strategy is when speakers pelt people with broad imperatives (“We all should be praying more”) that are divorced from practical “hooks.” You are the bridge between “what/why” and “how.” And “applicable” is determined by the people we’re leading, not by us. The question is: What’s applicable to the people I’m leading?
L—Stands for Learner-Based. The true judge of how much learning and transformation has been seeded by your presentation is the learner, not the speaker. That means the goal is not to deliver the stuff you’ve prepared and call it good—the goal is to make sure the learners “get it.” What would it take to lead people into an “ownership” relationship with your material?
Rick is the longtime editor of GROUP and the author of Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry.

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