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know thy audience – nigel irwin


The old saying goes, ‘to assume makes an ass out of you and me’. Recently I disproved this saying, showing instead that to assume often makes an ass out of me… and only me. In April I had the privilege of speaking at the 2016 Youth of the Nation Conference here in Whanganui. I admit I was feeling more nervous than I usually would be ahead of a speaking engagement. I was wading into unknown waters and was chronically aware of just how much things have changed since I was a spotty-faced, squeaky-voiced teenager.

Throughout the preparation of my seminar content, I was wracking my brain trying to come up with a novel and inventive way of bringing multi-media into my presentation. I sensed that the good old Powerpoint presentation wasn’t going to cut it for a youth event, and I needed to do something a little bit different, and perhaps just a little bit off-the-wall. Something with impact, something that would make a lasting impression and keep people talking long past lunchtime.

And then it hit me. Facebook. Genius! I created a Facebook page especially for my seminar. My thinking was that in a conference with several hundred teenagers, there would be several hundred smartphones, all connected to the World Wide Web via mobile data. Rather than beaming my content onto the screen via the projector, I converted each ‘slide’ to a JPEG, and made up a photo album on the Facebook page, where each attendee could gain fast, easy, and continual access.

It was a plan so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel. Furthermore, I would gain audience interaction and participation by directing individuals to the Facebook page, and asking them to come and read aloud various parts of the presentation. I bought iTunes and Google ‘Play’ vouchers as participation bribes, and I was all set to go. I was inspired, excited, and certain this seminar would be a smash hit.

I stood at the lectern and looked around at my eager, tech-savvy audience. My opening line went something like this, “Hey team, how many of you here have a smartphone?” I expected about 80% of hands to go up. It was more like 20%. Ahem. “Okay… well, um… how many of you have mobile data?” Another 20% – not 20% of the whole, just 20% of the 20% who had smartphones.

My heart sank. My confidence fled. My seminar began to crumble before my eyes. My presentation floundered. I learned afterward that the most popular and talked-about speakers at this conference didn’t use much technology. One guy used t-shirts and paint. Most just relied on a powerful message and commanding stage-presence.

The moral of the story for me is this: know thy audience, and assume nothing!

I confess I’ve been uncomfortable with a lot of the push toward visually-stimulating, interactive preaching aids. Call me old-school, but my (perhaps idealistic) hope has been that quality content and strong presentation skills ought to be enough to keep the attention of my listeners. We can have our eyeballs titillated and ears tickled almost everywhere in the world these days – does that mean it’s the right strategy for the church?

Have we all bought too quickly into millennial pleas to change our preaching mode to embrace an emerging new breed of modern Christian? At least in the case of this particular youth event, it would seem so. What do you think?


  1. Patricia Pinfold says:

    I agree that knowing your audience demographically is important. But even more important is knowing how to make each person feel validated, important and that their contribuation is valuable regardless of what generation they fit into. Once again, the challenge is knowing how to package this deal. I like to pray about the situation and ask for What has to say and wait and trust. For some reason, answers quite often not my idea begin to appear. Some people may be uncomfortable about the idea of praying and that is fine. It is something that works for me

  2. andrew morrison says:

    That would have been a hard lesson to learn. Thanks for sharing it.

    In the past 18 months our family has moved to a church that uses expository preaching, plugging our way through books of the bible, passage at a time, and not skipping any of the challenging sections. We’ve flourished and grown considerably. There are a few slides during the sermon, but not much. We come away from the service with our heads full of the text rather than full of the anecdotes the preacher used.

    A downside of doing what the world does, is that you have to keep on tickling the ears with the latest innovative technique rather than focussing on clearly communicating the meaning of the text.

    I’ve not yet used it, but in terms of presentation tools, I’ve heard that prezi allows for a presentation that jumps between different parts of the presentation really well.

  3. Tanya says:

    I love that you put such energy into the presentation. It would have worked with my public health lecture class. Almost everyone has phones, and the lecture room can be set up so they can all draw from the wifi there. But I would never have time to set up something as complex as you did (even now, teaching theology in a different institution). I love your thoughtfulness and creativity – even though it crumbled before your … data.
    Prezi is pretty, and done well can look amazing, but I find it takes a long time to prepare, and I’d rather that my audience heard the words than remembered the wow factor of an amazing visual presentation. But I’m old. What would I know

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