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.
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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