6 Ways to Connect with Your Audience

Whether you’re speaking to your students, a group of parents, or guest-speaking at a retreat or camp, it is important to think through how to connect with your audience. We have all witnessed someone struggle to connect with their target audience, and we know the necessity of connection as it helps to strengthen the effectiveness of our message. But the question is: how do we connect with our audience?

This is an interesting question because depending on the audience the answers may vary. If you’re communicating with students or children, you may use simpler language and talk about memories when you were their age. If you’re speaking to adults who have a stronger biblical background you may be more apt to include theological terms and doctrinal statements. But age aside, there are some key ways to connect with an audience no matter who you are speaking to. Today, I want to share some of these with you to help you think through how you’re not only connecting but also communicating with those around you.

Know your material.

This is a big thing that I think we often overlook. As ministers of the Gospel we need to take seriously what we are doing and sharing with those in our charge. We shouldn’t treat the messages we share with a lackadaisical attitude that sees us prepping the message right before the start of youth group or a conference. Instead we should desire to study and know our material, and we should give it the proper treatment that is reserved for the life-changing components it contains.

That means we need to afford the proper amount of prep time to what we are sharing, we should internalize our message so if we loose our place in our notes we can still continue and not be stuck, and doing this will afford us freedom as we share should a question or distraction be raised.

Know your audience.

This is one that can be both easy and difficult depending on your setting. If you’re speaking to your students it is probably easier to know them than if you were speaking at a conference or to a newer group. Regardless of who are speaking to, knowing your audience will allow you to establish rapport and credibility, which will then allow them to listen better to what you are sharing.

An easy few ways of knowing your audience include listening, observing, and interacting. Listen to the people around you: to what they say, their stories, their likes and dislikes. These things will help you know what makes them tick which will allow you to then engage with them more on their level and with what they care about. Observing people will also help you understand the social settings and dynamics that are happening within the group, and to discern what they do or don’t enjoy. This then affords you a greater understanding of how to relate to them. Lastly, you should also interact with your audience. Listening and observing is great, but if you don’t get involved with them you may appear standoffish or elitist. When you actually engage and participate with people you will learn much about who they are, which will allow you to connect with them at a deeper level.

Utilize stories.

Stories are an amazing way to connect with your audience. Not only do they help engage one’s imagination but they draw people in and help to further the point of your message. I highly encourage using personal stories because they help you to connect at a deeper level, show authenticity, and highlight that you are a real person who is growing just like your audience. Jesus used stories, often called parables, with great success because storytelling is a wonderful and helpful means of getting your audience to understand and connect the principles you are sharing with real world application and results.

Be authentic.

If you work with students you probably know that they can sniff out when someone isn’t being real or honest with them. They know the moment someone doesn’t really see or care about them, and they know if a speaker truly cares about and wants to be sharing with their group. So when you are speaking or onstage for an event, just be yourself and look to connect with your audience by sharing from your life. Don’t try to mimic another speaker or presenter. Don’t try to tell someone else’s story. Don’t try to be another “influencer.” Instead be who God made you. Communicate your own way and care about the people with whom you are communicating. When they see your heart and love for them, complimented with the truth of Gospel, then you will see lives changed as the Spirit of God takes hold of them.

Use humor.

Humor is a great resource when connecting with people. Some people are masters at this and can seemingly weave it into any talk with little effort, while others need to work hard to bring it into their messages. No matter where you fall in that spectrum, consider using it because humor helps people lower their walls and it allows them to trust you more.

When it comes to humor remember a few things:

  • Always keep it appropriate. If you need to ask, “is this okay to say, do, or show?” the answer is probably no. Always err on the side of caution. You never want humor to be the focus of your message but to point people back to it.
  • Never use other people for humor unless you have their permission. The worst thing you could do is make fun of someone in the audience because they will tune you out and you could potentially turn them off to Jesus.
  • Poke fun at yourself and tell funny stories from your own life. This will help you to be relatable and seen as a normal, everyday person.
  • Your message isn’t a stand-up routine. You are there to point people to Jesus, and humor is simply an asset to help you do just that. Too much humor will come across as disingenuous and people will only come to laugh and not hear the truth of the Gospel.

Utilize visuals.

Visuals can come in all varieties and may change depending on your audience. If it’s a younger audience video clips and funny photos may be a very helpful resource. If it’s an older audience photos, quotes, pictures of resources, and graphs may help in getting your point(s) across. Regardless, we must understand that visuals help us in communicating and therefore help us in connecting with the audience. Visuals bring people in, capture their attention, and help with recall later on.

A few easy visuals include photos (personal photos offer a deeper level of connection if applicable), video clips, PowerPoint or ProPresenter slides, props as they pertain to what you’re sharing, or art. The importance thing in utilizing visuals is that you do not force them and that they are not juvenile. Don’t try to force a prop into an illustration or point because if it doesn’t work, you will detract from your message. And if you try to do something juvenile, people will disconnect and just think about how it wasn’t for them rather than focusing on the point you are attempting to communicate.

How to Value + Incorporate Story Telling in Student Ministry

Everyone loves a good story, especially if it’s true. Historically our world has relied on stories to tell us where we’ve been, where we’re going, and how to live in the here-and-now. Christianity especially is grounded on a book full of stories about God and His people.

Story telling is nothing new, in the world or in student ministry. But at times we may forget just how powerful and important the telling of true stories can be. For followers of Jesus, they can be a compelling marker for the ways in which our lives have been changed and can be changed by the Gospel.

Valuing Story Telling

One of the best ways to truly value the telling of stories within a church context is also one of the most simple: keep them true. Whether it’s a quirky illustration or a heartfelt recounting, make sure it’s a true story. Nothing turns listeners off more than realizing a great story is fake. Conversely, nothing connects a listener to a speaker more than an honest retelling of their life experiences.

True stories are especially important when it comes to connecting “real life” to our faith. For many students, faith can feel like an abstract concept, resulting in a separation of their faith journey from their everyday life. The telling of true, personal stories can model a bringing together of our everyday lives and our faith, showing how the two are woven together at all times. True stories from our lives connect the abstract to reality.

True stories also help to illustrate the life change that the Gospel brings about, showing that Jesus Christ isn’t just a historical figure but a living being who interacts with us now. Stories can demonstrate the power and applicability of the Gospel to the struggles our students may be facing. They can move a message from a broad theme of “the Gospel can change your life” to a specific example of “how the Gospel changed my life.”

In a way, the valuing of true, personal story telling is also a way for us to value the Gospel. If the truth of Jesus Christ has changed your life, you will have stories to back it up. And even more than that, you will want to share these stories so that others may know about the Jesus you have encountered.

Incorporating Story Telling

An obvious and easy way to incorporate story telling into your youth ministry is to include it in weekly messages. Again, using true and personal stories to illustrate your main points is much more powerful than a generic story about “a friend” or “a girl named Sarah.” Even if the story about your friend is true, unless your friend is telling it, there will be less of a connection between the story and your students. Aim to keep all your stories to personal and factual accounts.

Another way to incorporate story telling while also building community and connection is to invite leaders and students into the process. Some of the most powerful student ministry nights have featured a leader or student sharing their personal story of how Jesus changed their life. Consider structuring a series around the sharing of leader and/or student testimonies. Planning in advance will allow you to meet with each story teller to help them prepare and practice telling their story. In addition to giving them a platform to share the Gospel, you will also build community between story tellers and those who listen, resulting in the strengthening and building up of relationships within your ministry.

Look for ways to empower your students to tell their stories. Some may not feel comfortable sharing in front of the entire group, but that shouldn’t make their story any less valuable. All followers of Christ should be encouraged to write and track the story of how He has changed and is changing their life.

Consider hosting an event to help students write and tell their story, providing tips, personal assistance, creative options, and tools like a journal and pens. Some students might write their story like an essay, while others may want to write it like poetry or spoken word. Leave time at the end of the event for an “open mic” session for any who would like to share. Secure a few leaders and/or students ahead of time to share and help get things started.

When you incorporate story telling into your ministry, your goal should be to not only share your story or your leaders’ stories. It should be to champion and equip your students in the telling of their stories as well. Each follower of Jesus is part of God’s overarching story, and to value the telling of individual stories is to value our place in it.

Should I Use Curriculum?

One of the questions I am most often asked is: do you use a curriculum when you craft your messages? This questions and others like it constantly pop up in forums, Facebook groups, and in youth worker gatherings as people try to navigate whether using someone else’s material is appropriate, and if they do, how to incorporate it well.

To answer the above question, sometimes I use curriculum and other times I craft my own messages, it just depends. Honestly, choosing to use a curriculum is a choice each person will need to make on their own, but I can say that it is okay to use it. You shouldn’t feel bad for using a pre-made lesson or series. These are resources to utilize that will help you grow, mature, and be a better youth leader. But in saying that, there are a few guidelines and principles that I think should be followed when using a curriculum in order for it to have the best affect on your students.

Plan ahead.

Work ahead on your schedule as much as you can so you aren’t trying to get curriculum for this week, or tomorrow night. By doing this you remove the pressure of finding the best curriculum for your program in a short amount of time, and you give yourself breathing room to pick something that is best for your students and what you are looking to create. Don’t pick a curriculum to just fill the space, but be intentional in what you choose and why you choose it. Build it into the mission and vision of your program so that it all flows together well.

Vet the curriculum.

Make sure the curriculum is solid before choosing to use it. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say that they purchased a curriculum site-unseen in hopes of using it that week and it turned out to not be worth what they paid. Look for reviews or previews of the curriculum. See if other people have used it before. Purchase or gather your curriculum from trusted sources. Some great online sources for curriculum include Leader Treks, Download Youth Ministry, The Source 4 YM, Orange, YM360, YouthMin.org, and Group Ministries.

Read through your curriculum.

Once you have the material you are using, take time to read through the entire curriculum. Look at the resources they give you, see how many lessons they provide, look into how they utilize Scripture, and make notes and tweaks to the material as you read through. Often when I am reading through curriculum I look for where there are personal stories or phrases that only relate to the author’s audience and note them so when I am preparing my lesson I know to change them.

Know your audience.

When using a curriculum, remember who you are using it for. I have heard people use a curriculum and reuse someone else’s stories or examples word-for-word. Typically what happens is the stories fall flat, students disengage, and you can instantly tell that the message is not having the desired effect. What I suggest is knowing your students and shaping the curriculum around them. Take the material and make sure it is relatable and translatable to your audience.

Use the curriculum as a springboard.

Whenever I use a curriculum I never use it verbatim. I look for the big ideas, the translatable concepts, Scripture passages, and key points. Then I look to shape those areas around a lesson I craft; I take the meat of the curriculum and shape it for my context. This does take a little more time, but I would never advocate for simply reading from a pre-crafted message because it feels disconnected. Crafting a lesson from a curriculum saves you time while also allowing you to put your own heart and passion into the message.

Crafting Messages with Meaning

“Oh, you teach students? So what do you talk about? Video games, sports, relationships, respect? Or is it more like just babysitting them for a few moments when you can make them sit still?”

We have all heard, or will hear, these or other comments surrounding the messages we give to students. These comments aren’t all out of ignorance or immaturity, but some can be rooted in missteps of those who went before us. We as youth leaders have an uphill climb when it comes to showcasing the legitimacy of student ministry, and we should own it when it comes to our teaching and leading.

Teaching students has to be one of our priorities (I will speak to other priorities in later posts), and one that cannot be treated as a second tier thought. I have witnessed many youth leaders casually offer up a five to ten minute message with little prep, less effort, and almost no comprehension of their audience. But to do that to our students, especially within this generation that is hyper-aware of our world, is a disservice and will ultimately leave students frustrated, disappointed, and wanting more. We must teach our students well, be informed on important topics, and help to train them as mature Christ-followers.

So how do we do that? Here are some tips I have learned throughout my time in ministry and I hope they afford you some insight on how to offer messages that help to push students to grow, take action, and reach their world.

Spend time preparing. 

We would think this is a no-brainer, but let’s be honest shall we? We have all had a week where we “haven’t had the time” and have thrown together a message or simply defaulted to a “game night” for our youth group gathering. I am not saying we cannot have those days or moments, that’s life, but that cannot be common place. We must spend time studying, researching, applying, and helping God’s Word relate to our students. The bulk of my time (outside of meetings of course) is spent studying and preparing for my messages. I want to have a thorough grasp of God’s Word and treat it with the respect it deserves. Putting the time in allows me to shape the message to my students and help them understand it.

Know your audience.

One of my biggest pet peeves of speakers is when they try to relate to the audience but it is clear they have no idea who the audience is or what they value. In order for you to produce messages that matter, you must know your students. Then as you are crafting your message and listening to the Holy Spirit, God will direct you in ways to speak specifically to them. So hang out with your students, learn what they enjoy, know their values, understand their dislikes, find out their favorite places to hang out, and uncover what is happening in their lives.

Use personal stories.

Don’t settle for someone else’s story or narrative. Use personal examples, tell stories from your childhood, be authentic about when you messed up. The more students can tell you are a real person, the more inclined they will be to hear you and listen to what you are saying.

Be a student of culture.

In order to craft messages that relate to students, you must understand who they are, what they value, what is important in their lives, and what is happening that shapes who they are. This means you should have a grasp of the music they listen to; the way social media is utilized in their lives; the topics and issues they are passionate about; and their view of life, church, and culture. In doing so, you will be better suited to speak to them and to how their lives are being informed and shaped.

Use humor.

Growing up I was not naturally funny. I mean I was a goofball but humor wasn’t something that I used in my talks or speeches. When I first started in ministry, I knew I had no humor so I would literally open every message with a joke from a 90s joke book that had nothing to do with my message, its points, or anything to do with that day. I just knew humor was a good thing, but I had no idea how to incorporate it. Let me say this: you do not have to be a comedian to relate to students, but being able to have fun and laugh will make you a better communicator. Use stories from your past, poke fun at yourself, laugh about a story you were reading in the news, find humor in Scripture. Humor will not only help you break down walls but it will also make your students see you in a transparent way. You have become authentic and real.

A quick side note: never, ever poke fun at a student from the stage. Doing so will alienate your audience, cause you to lose rapport, and your students will cease to trust you. Even if you have their permission, don’t do it because the rest of the audience may not know that the student gave permission.

Be passionate.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard students say, “The speaker was good, but they just weren’t into it.” As communicators of God’s Word, we need to get excited about it. Show students the power of the Gospel. Let them see how you are working it out. Cast vision and excitement for what the Gospel can and will do. Students and adults alike should see our passion for the kingdom of heaven, and it should affect our teaching.

Pray.

I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten ready to teach and I felt so ill-equipped and unprepared. It was terrifying. Each of those times I would pray earnestly seeking God’s direction and asking Him to speak through me, and He did. We serve a great and powerful God who doesn’t need us to communicate His Word, but chooses to use us as a tool to advance His Kingdom. Cover your message in prepare before, during, and after you speak. And understand that you will still be scared, but as a professor of mine once said, “If you ever take the pulpit without some sense of fear because you are communicating the holy Word of God, you need to not be behind that pulpit.”

Know who you are, who God has empowered you to be, speak boldly and passionately, and showcase the Word of God to your students and you will see students grab on and never let go.