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The Ultimate Guide to Creating Better Message Illustrations

 by Aaron Helman | @aaronhelman | loading comments...

Whenever someone asks me what they can do to become a better speaker...

...I start by telling them to work harder to develop excellent message illustrations.

It doesn't matter if you've got technically perfect delivery, voice control, non-verbal skills, and killer comedic timing.

If your illustrations don't clearly and concisely connect one idea to another, your talk will fall flat.

At the same time, I've seen plenty of "technically deficient" speakers bring an awesome message on the strength of one unforgettable illustration.

Want to become a better speaker? Start by following these rules toward generating better message illustrations.

Before we get started, let me tell you where these rules came from. I've analyzed and torn apart more than 100 different talks I've given in my career. I've also done the same thing for other talks that I've seen.

Lastly, I've tried to study the illustrations that Jesus used throughout the Gospels. I'm convinced that in addition to everything else, Jesus was a Master Illustrator, and you'll see some of that in this list.

So grab a piece of paper and a pen, and let's get started.

1. Illustrations should be immediately recognizable to your crowd.
A while back, a youth speaker at my church shared an illustration about his favorite basketball player, Pistol Pete Maravich. Hardcore (or older) basketball fans will know that name, but Maravich retired from the NBA in 1980, fifteen years before any of my students was even born.

The problem with this illustration was that in order for students to understand it, the speaker first had to spend a full eight minutes explaining who Maravich was.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus shares bundles of farming illustrations because that was the idea that was most well-known to the most people in His context. They may have struggled to understand why Jesus was talking about a mustard seed, but they knew intimately what a mustard seed was.

It was a sad day when I retired the illustration about Michael Jordan's 'Flu Game' in 1997, but when it hit me that almost none of my students were alive when it happened and that most of them (incorrectly) thought LeBron James was the greatest basketball player of all-time, I realized I didn't have a choice.

I couldn't help them understand the idea of Spiritual Endurance by relaying a story they didn't know, hadn't seen, and didn't care about.

Same thing goes for older movies and TV shows. It's probably not worth explaining something they don't understand to help them understand something else they don't understand.

2. Illustrations should be unexpected.
If students can see exactly how your message is going to end because your story or illustration is so obvious, they'll start to check out. It will feel cliche and tired.

You want them to inaudibly wonder where the heck you're going with this thing you're talking about. Then, when you make your point, things will become clear to them alarmingly suddenly.

It might seem like comparing Spiritual Endurance to training for a marathon is a simple and effective tool, but unless you've got some compelling marathon experience, the illustration won't be different from something they've heard before.

One of the best illustrations I ever heard was a guy detailing how much he hates going to the dentist. He did it because despite the fact that it was unpleasant, he knew it was best for him. And if he could endure the dentist's chair for 45 minutes, he could sit down and read the Bible even if he didn't feel like it at the time.

It was a winning illustration because students already knew what a trip to the dentist was like, they were drawn in to his dental horror story without yet knowing where it was going, and when it was connected, it suddenly made a bunch of sense.

3. Illustrations should NOT glorify poor behavior or choices.
A lot of illustrations take the form of a hilarious story, and a lot of hilarious stories come from poor choices that we don't want students to emulate.

A youth pastor told a story about the time he ran from the cops after TP'ing a neighbor's house. I don't remember what the illustration was supposed to be, and neither did most of the students. They just remembered laughing at the funny story about vandalism and resisting arrest.

Step back from your illustration for a minute and ask yourself, "If all they remembered was my story and not its relation to Scripture? Would we be in trouble?"

In the case of the fugitive youth pastor, yes.

In the case of the Mustard Seed, no harm done.

A similar idea applies to stories that feature athletes or celebrities. Be careful not to tacitly endorse something you wouldn't want to.

4. Illustrations should be visible, or better yet, tangible.
Show students that mustard seed. Even better, give them a mustard seed. If your students have something they can hang on to, your illustration will be that much stickier.

I recognize that this is not always possible. In the case of a truly compelling story, you might not need anything else. But if your illustration is about something that is otherwise mundane, consider spicing it up with a great visual or handout.

5. Illustrations shouldn't be fully explained.
You want to give your students something to chew on, not something you've already chewed up for them. Look at the illustrations of Jesus in the Bible. Some of them are vague enough that theologians are still debating their meaning today.

This is actually a very good thing. An illustration that leaves us thinking is more impactful than one we totally understand but immediately forget.

If you run small groups as a part of your ministry, you'll be stealing some truly great discussion from your leaders if you do them the disservice of fully dissecting your illustration.

6. Illustrations should start with Scripture, NOT your story.
This is the biggest mistake I see youth pastors make. Something funny or interesting or inconvenient happens to them, and they immediately start wondering "how I can weave this into a message."

But that's totally backwards. Don't try to figure out how you can make your awkward encounter with the mailman a part of the Bible. Start by asking yourself how you can best explain Scripture.

When you start with your own funny story, you'll usually end up with a hilarious message that failed to really connect to or explain the truth of Scripture. Great if your primary goal is to be an entertainer. Not great if your primary goal is communicating Truth.

That's it. Six rules in what's got to be one of the longest posts in the history of SmarterYM. What did I miss? Anything you would strike from the list?

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Why youth leaders should probably be talking less at youth group

 by Aaron Helman | @aaronhelman

We don't need to make Biblical teaching harder than it already is.

But almost every single week, we crank up that difficulty level - inadvertantly

You might be sabotaging yourself without even realizing about it.

So if you're the program's emcee, game show host, worship leader....

...keeper of order, announcement bringer, and primary teacher...

...this post is for you.

Students don't notice how long your formal teaching is. They just notice how much time you spend talking.

I've heard the same complaint a hundred times from frustrated youth workers:

"I can't get them to pay attention, and I'm only teaching for like fifteen minutes!"

Nine times out of ten, I bring the same response:

They won't pay attention to your message if they listen to your voice for 30 minutes before it begins!

As a young youth worker, I bought into the myth that it was my responsibility to do everything that happened during any gathering. The result?

I shared announcements, then icebreaker questions, then made some jokes about something topical.

I explained and reexplained the rules to whichever wacky game I'd created.

I opened with prayer, read Scripture, and told the kids in the back to please quiet down and to be respectful.

I led worship with my guitar and also served as the lead vocalist.

Do you see what's happening here?

By the time I tried to share "the message," those poor students had already heard my voice for 40 minutes!

Of course, the cost was greater than that.

I was stuck trying to do six different jobs in the course of an hour, and was doing very few of them well.

I was stealing leadership and failing to develop volunteers.

There was no diversity of any sort on the stage. As a result, I lost some of the students who struggled to relate to me.

(Typically, this meant anyone who might enjoy a "craft.")

I complained that students didn't pay attention.

Students complained that everything started to feel the same.

Share responsibility within your programs.
It's actually really easy.

Select a volunteer to lead the games. Don't worry, you can still select and create them, but hand off the delivery to someone else.

Step back from the music and let someone else - a student, perhaps? - lead the singing.

Goodness gracious, someone else can do the announcement!

Your students deserve to hear that variety of voices...

...and you deserve to be heard when it's time to do the teaching.

And now, if you talk too much, I've gotten a golden opportunity for you:

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The SINGLE MOST COMMON reason parents don't read your emails

 by Aaron Helman | @aaronhelman | loading comments...

Email communication was supposed to be the Greatest Thing of All Time.

It was free, it was easy, it was instantaneous.

It was going to save you time and money and make your job a hundred times easier.

Until it didn't.

Email communication is only effective if people actually read their emails, and too often they don't.

There are a lot of reasons for that, but the most common one might surprise you.

The single most common reason parents don't read our emails is because they never actually get them.

It's tempting to think that parents are too lazy to read our emails. It's tempting to think that they've got bad priorities and that our emails lie unopened in the bottom of their inbox.

And while there is almost certainly some of that happening, it's far more common that they're actually not receiving those emails in the first place. [Click to tweet this.]

So how can a person never receive an email that you definitely, definitely sent?

It's usually one of two culprits - you've got the wrong email address or they've got a segmented inbox. Let's dive in:

Bad email addresses
When Hillary Clinton announced her most recent Presidential bid, her campaign team assumed she'd be at a significant advantage, as they still had access to more than 2.5 million email addresses they'd collected during her 2008 run.

In theory, that would put them several steps ahead of other candidates.

Unfortunately for them, only 100,000 of those 2,500,000 email addresses were still active. That's right, in just about eight years, 96% of her supporters experienced some form of email turnover.

There are lots of reasons to change email addresses. Some people change jobs and leave their work-related email address behind. Others change ISPs and migrate to a new local email provider. Others experience divorce or a name change. Some finally see the light and realize that AOL and Hotmail are relics belonging to 1995, not 2015.

Whatever it is, the best statistics I've seen point to 30% of email users changing their address annually.

If your ministry or church is sitting on an email list that hasn't been intentionally updated in the last 3-4 years, there's a real possibility that as much as half of it is being delivered to abandoned email addresses.

And I know it seems like it should go without saying, but if email communication is important to your ministry, then take the time to make sure you've got the most current email list possible.

Segmented inboxes
Back in 2013, Gmail added three filters to the default Inbox screen. Instead of seeing all messages on one screen, it now sorts them into three categories:


It seems like Gmail is just trying to do everyone a favor, but here's where it creates a problem for you and me.

If you use Mailchimp, AWeber, Emma, Constant Contact, or any newsletter manager, your emails are automatically categorized as "Promotions."

That means instead of making it into your congregant's real inbox, they'll be stuck in that tab, sandwiched between a dozen expired Groupon mailings and the information about Old Navy's Back-to-School sale.

This is a problem, and when I checked the stats on my open rates, I saw a 13% dropoff after Gmail instituted these changes. Among Gmail users, it was a 35% dropoff. That's a huge number, and if communication is important to you, it's a number that can absolutely impact your ministry.


Okay, so what do we do about it?
Hey, it wouldn't be a SmarterYM post if I just laid out a bunch of unsolvable problems. Let's get started on some quick fixes.

First, take a deep breath and try to have a little empathy for a parent the next time they don't know what's going on. They may have forgotten to share their updated email address with the church. Even worse, they may have told one person on your staff, but the word never made it back to you.

Second, look through your email open reports and start calling parents who haven't opened in email from you in a while. This is tedious. It's time-consuming. It's obnoxious.

But it's less obnoxious than dealing with a family who claimed (sometimes legitimately) that they didn't know about the registration deadline for the mission trip.

Third, explain segmented inboxes to parents. In order to keep church emails coming to the primary inbox, all they need to do is drag one of your emails from 'Promotions' to 'Inbox'. From then on, all of your emails will be delivered as normal.

Fourth, don't use email exclusively. Unfortunately, we're only ever one Gmail change, spam filter malfunction, or corporate email filter away from being totally unable to reach a parent. Even worse, we won't always know when that happens.

Parental Facebook groups, snail mail, flyers, and phone calls should be a part of what you do to keep parents apprised of your ministry too.

And if you've got any other idea, be sure to let us know.

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