What Children Taught Me About Communication

Lots of unusual things happen on the road. A few years ago, for example, we met a former Air Force sergeant who actually worked at Area 51, the desert location where secret military things happen according to the government, and salvaged alien spacecraft are hidden according to UFO researchers.

But one of the most helpful of our unusual road experiences occurred while presenting our vision for a new church in Berkeley to a group of elementary age children at Elevation Church in Layton, Utah. Jan and I shared with them for about 10 minutes before speaking in the adult service.

Before going to the children’s area, we cooked up a plan for our presentation: We would use a Cal teddy bear as a prop, then show one of our short Berkeley videos, and then talk a bit just before giving the kids a chance to ask questions. Brilliant.

Entering the room, we found Brianna and Clint, two of the adults working with the kids, and asked for some advice on how to communicate with today’s nine year-old. I questioned whether the children even knew what a “university” was, only to be assured they did understand the word “college” because there were some in the area, and they mostly intended to go there one day.

That helped. But, soon we realized the kids were too old for our teddy bear trick. When the video failed to function (our bad), the second part of our plan also collapsed. This left us  with only a short talk and the favorite of every 5th grader: Q & A.

The children entered as a group and all sat in the front row, separating themselves by several seats to stretch end to end. Brianna told us later that getting them all into the front row was a considerable moral victory. Her comment reminds me how much often progress has to be measured in excruciatingly small steps.

Jan opened our presentation by defining “college” as a kind of school attended by thousands of people and said we were going to move near to one called “Cal” to start a new church. Then it was my turn to talk about how God wants to be everyone’s friend and that many of the people at Cal didn’t know about God’s friendship.

Then came the highlight of the talk (at least for us): teaching the kids to growl like Cal Bears (our mascot). A few brave students asked some questions during the Q & A time, and, with one final bear growl, we excused ourselves to speak in the adult service—where the video worked, the reception was warm, and everyone sat attentively through our 30-minute tandem presentation.

We both spoke in each venue, and we both totally enjoyed them.

But I gained a new conviction about training communicators: anyone preparing for a role that involves public speaking should give presentations for children on a regular basis. Jan and I have done so many talks for adults that I cannot count them, but we have been in a children’s venue only a handful of times.

This latest experience with kids reinforces some things for me:

1. Talks really need to be shorter: We were asked to do 10-15 minutes for the children. But even this very reasonable request seemed like an eternity during the actual presentation. Some of that feeling doubtless reflected our inexperience, but I can only imagine how long it seemed to the kids! I have been an advocate of 25-minute sermons for a while now, but mine generally end up being something like 30 minutes, even using a timer. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

The children taught us that shorter (generally) is better. My case for short talks is not based on declining attention spans, but on two other ideas: (a) the time belongs to the audience not to me, so my task is to be a good steward; (b) cutting minutes from a talk forces me to use only my best stuff by condensing the content, hopefully getting rid of the Hamburger Helper and retaining the hamburger.

2. You are the ultimate weapon: On the road, presentation technology will work about 70% of the time. This figure climbs to about 85% whenever you have home court advantage. We could not get our Berkeley video to function for the children (our fault for not showing up earlier with the disc), but they did not seem to care. Even the collapse of the teddy bear strategy left them unmoved. Their response seemed to depend more on who we were and why we were there. Are we going to be more impressive than their video games? I don’t think so.

This experience made me wonder if we are over-developing our technology and under-developing ourselves as communicators. I’m not suggesting this is always a trade-off, but that with all our production meetings, creativity teams, and branding, who is in charge of developing the communicator him/herself into a person worth listening to?

3. Feedback is my friend: Adult audiences are usually too nice. Even when I am doing a talk that is not moving people at all, many in the audience will solidify their facial expression into a frozen mask of feigned interest. Sure, some will play with their phones, but lots of people will pretend to be engaged while secretly watching another movie in the multiplex theater of their minds (or their phone).

Children are not so. They are honest. Whenever Jan and I lost the attention of our elementary age students, their posture and expressions immediately made this painfully clear forcing us to try something else to regain their interest (the Cal Bear growl helped a lot). Similarly, watching yourself on video as soon after a talk as possible is a tremendous way to improve, as is soliciting input through surveys or focus groups. Why not invite a future-Christian to a service and ask him or her give you an evaluation of a sermon? I ask my students in preaching classes to do this sort of thing, and often see profound results.

Communicating across cultural lines is the single most effective way to grow as a speaker. The line between adults and children is one of those opportunities. Think you’re pretty good? Try speaking to kids.

One thought on “What Children Taught Me About Communication

  1. Great post, Earl! With 2 decades in children’s ministry (both volunteer and full-time and both in the US and Romania), I believe that preparing a 10-min talk for kids week-in and week-out is invaluable preparation for ministry to all other age-groups, so much so that it should be mandatory that it should be a mandatory part of training for all pastors.

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