Friday, January 29, 2016

How to Speak so College Students Will Listen

When someone is not a famous speaker it seems a little presumptuous to tell others how to be a great speaker. So, here are my credentials. As Baptist Campus Minister at Arkansas State University for 32 years, I attended more than 900 of our Outreach Lunch Programs. Each of these featured a Christian speaker. In 900 times I saw it done great, well, acceptable and oh my gosh poorly.

Keep in mind that the audience at these 900 plus events were committed Christians, non-Christians, and lots of students who had walked away from their faith in college. The size of the audience varied from 15 to 300 through the years as the event grew and developed. But, it was not your plain "I'll listen to anything cause I love Jesus." crowd.

So, here is what I take from those 900 speaker experiences.

1. Tell stories.
Nothing communicates better with students than a story well told. Ed Seabough, the great college speaker of the 60's and 70's, was one of the best story tellers ever. He said he practiced telling his stories. One story told well will gain attention, identification, and it has sticky value with those who hear it.

2. Speak casually.....don't preach.
Tone is huge with these college crowds. This is like talking to a friend. It has a personal warmth to it. Yelling doesn't work, no matter how good the content. Many see loud as offensive.

3. Humor always goes well....not corny jokes.
Laughter is a wonderful lubricant that makes things go well. Be willing to laugh at yourself. A funny story told on yourself is always well received.

4. Pace matters.
Pause. Don't hurry. This is part of speaking casually as talking to a friend. When our adrenalin is pumping, we usually wind up speaking faster. Slow down.

5. Know when they have quit listening.
When their heads are up, they are listening. When their heads are down, they have quit listening. But, lots of times, I have seen heads come back up. A new point can draw them back to you. When the heads stay down, it is over.

6. Quit before they quit.
Simply put, shorter is better than longer. I know many Christian speakers speak 40 to 50 minutes these days. But, I don't think that works well with student crowds as a whole. At a Lunch Program with a strict time limit in order to make the next class period, 20 minutes was the max. Get done in your time limit...don't just have to end. There is a reason TED talks are 18 minutes.

7. Speak without a podium or pulpit.
If there is one, get out from behind it. This changes it from a lecture to a conversation. This takes the barrier out. Your notes can be in your Bible. Students have lots of people who speak to them in boring fashion from behind a podium or lectern.

8. Ask for a response.
I'm not talking about a walk the aisle invitation. Ask a "How many of you have ever.....?" kind of question with a show of hands. This involves them in it. Often, this can tie well to a personal story you are telling. When I do this, I usually hold my hand up or say, "On that, I need to hold both hands up."

9. Don't read to them.
At one of our lunches, I saw a Seminary professor cling to his notes like they were a life raft. He read some great things....but....all the heads were down. Nobody heard it. A speaker the next week could have warmly said the same thing to them and they would have sworn they had never heard that before.

There are only a few gifted speakers, but all of us can be a better speaker by working at it and knowing who our
audience is. College students are people....but, a unique people! Don't just speak so committed Christian students will listen to you, speak so lots of different students will listen to you.

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