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What Millennials Think When You Speak

What Millennials Think When You Speak

The thoughts in a listener’s mind can distort or block out everything I am saying.

In 2005 I visited a large congregation in Copenhagen, Denmark, with my wife Janet, a group of young American ministers and a team of missionary leaders. The Sunday service featured worship choruses with recognizable melodies, a drama presented by the youth group and a sermon delivered by the youth pastor—wearing jeans and an untucked shirt. We had experienced all of this before with one exception—all of the elements of the service were in Danish.

The gracious congregation attempted to remedy our lack of understanding by passing out headphones to our little band. Powered by infrared radiation, the headsets were to carry an English translation that would help us feel included in that Sunday’s activities. But most of the headsets did not work reliably. We ended up passing the two functioning units up and down our row, like 10 scuba divers all sharing two air tanks. When an operating headset was not in my possession, I listened to whichever malfunctioning unit I happened to have at the time, reasoning that picking up a little of the English was better than none at all. Overall, we each took in about one word in every two or three that were spoken or sung that morning.

The failure of our infrared devices has become symbolic for me of the challenges involved in any form of intercultural communication, whether it is across nationalities, ethnicities or generations. Until true understanding is created (in other words, everyone becomes bilingual), someone will have to translate, putting the message into a form of communication that the receiver understands. We routinely make worship services more accessible for the hearing impaired using sign language interpretation and assisted hearing devices. What if we applied the same sensitivity to the gulf that separates older from younger Christians?

While no infrared device is available (yet) to translate the words of one generation for another, communicators my age (Baby Boomers) could reach out to young people (Millennials) by accepting the painful reality that what we think we are saying is often not what the listener is hearing. For the purposes of this article, I will define the Millennial generation (also known as Gen Y) as having been born between 1977 and 2002 and now numbering more than 70 million. My tribe, the Baby Boomers, are generally thought of as born between 1946 and 1964. We are the second largest American generation, with Millennials being the largest ever. It is ironic that, despite the similarities that some writers have noted between the generations, we are having some difficulties connecting with each other. The main reason for this problem is that Boomer communicators speak to Millennials as if they were Boomers too. In other words, my natural tendency is to speak like a Dane even when my hearers recognize only English.

It took me months to discover, for example, that Millennial audience members with whom I thought I had established great eye contact were secretly sending text messages from their cell phones. They do this so frequently that, in combination with the predictive text feature, looking at the phone’s screen or keyboard is no longer necessary. When I asked Kate, a 21-year-old church staff member if she had ever done this during a sermon, her answer was one word floating on a laugh: “Always.”

So what are Millennials thinking about when I am talking to them in a public setting? Our relationships and the research I did for this article have revealed several contrasts between what I say and what they think:

1. When you say “Lipitor,” they think “Viagra.” This one actually happened to me the day I started writing this article. Speaking to a group of about 50 Millennials at a small conference, I attempted to define the Baby Boomer generation as “people my age who are sustained by Lipitor.” To my surprise this usually sure-fire joke got not a whisper of response. Eating spaghetti with some of the church’s pastors two hours later, Mark, who leads a young adult discipleship ministry, told me that my joke got no response because the students had the wrong idea about Lipitor, having confused this cholesterol-lowering medication with Viagra, the only drug they had ever associated with aging Boomers.

While you may never mention pharmaceuticals in public, the assumption that a certain word carries a very specific and well-known meaning, i.e., that it is in the public domain, can collapse very easily when we cross generational lines. This point came home to me strongly when I created a moment of thundering silence in a small amphitheater filled with college students by using the word moratorium. The silence became so tense that I had to ask them about its cause. Simple: they had never heard the word before. What appears to be public domain to me (I was remembering environmentalists demanding a “moratorium” on nuclear power plants) had simply passed from the awareness of these educated young people. In tangible terms, speaking from manuscripts helps with this issue by giving me the ability to carefully select my words and to have them reviewed in advance by natives of Millennial culture.

2. When you say, “My third point is …,” they think, “When is this going to be over, anyway?” Several young people have shared with me the value of a speaker who “keeps your attention the entire time, not just in the beginning.” While one focus group expressed the strong sentiment that “anything more than 30 minutes is too long and we fall asleep,” 18-year-old Karissa was very clear with me that the length of a talk did not matter to her as long as it held her interest.

In communicating with young adults, it might be more accurate to say that they have short attention spans when talks are not engaging. Many focus groups have reported to me that being “interesting” is the primary trait of a great sermon or teaching. In other words, if you are ineffective, everyone has a short attention span. I recommend, then, adopting a default length of 25 minutes for Millennial presentations by older communicators. This length is easier to achieve if Boomers think of every young hearer as holding a remote control in her or his hand, which they will use to change mental channels the instant the talk become less engaging than their competing thoughts.

3. When you say, “In the original Greek, this means …,” they think, “This is abstract; tell me how it affects my life!” I received a rude introduction to this kind of thinking when a student raised his hand during a lecture at his New England college and asked me bluntly, “Why do we need to know this stuff?” I was concerned with transferring information and perspective, while they were centered on the pragmatic issue of how this data made a difference for them. This tends to be what Millennials mean when they use the word relevant. As one focus group described it, a presentation with this trait deals with “things that are applicable, things that leave you with a reasonable challenge, something that inspires passion, something that’s convincing with evidence to back up what you say, something that really speaks to a need …” Another said, “It applies to your life, and it impacts you.” More specifically, 21-year-old Kate related her great respect for the sermons of her church’s young adult pastor because his talks were full of “stuff you wouldn’t think of yourself … very down to earth.”

Boomers who want to connect with Millennials have to present talks that are practical without being formulaic and artificial. Young adults are not quick to believe that there are 21 irrefutable laws of anything. But they are looking for new perspectives and godly wisdom that can change their lives. While they enjoy style as a vehicle, they want substance as defined by help with discovering how the story of the Bible can become their story in everyday life.

4. When you say, “George Barna recently reported that …,” they think, “OK, George Barna we know, but who are you?” The classic feature of the Millennial audience is the longing for something called authenticity in communicators. Boomers tend to see this trait simply as the use of self-deprecating humor or as a sort of platform persona adopted for the sake of audience adaptation. The Millennials I have met appreciate the humor, but despise the idea of the persona. Katie, for example, disdains Christian communicators who put on their “speaker self.” In her mind being real is much more important than being eloquent. Another group of young leaders made this point more specific: “A lot of times preachers will just say things but won’t give you a story of how they have changed.” In other words, if the message hasn’t helped me personally, how can I expect to make the case that it can help them?

If I don’t open up my life, I mean really open it up, in a way that “pulls you into their personal life,” they won’t see what God is doing. This requires what one focus group called having “no front or mask.” It also means, as Karissa put it, that communicators need to be honest and direct, not trying to “cover up the truth with fancy stuff.” Another aspect of authenticity concerns the speaker’s personal knowledge of the subject. Great communication is happening “when you can tell that the speaker is actually speaking from experience.” For younger audiences, experience counts. No amount of confessing our limitations compensates for a lack of real expertise and the hard work of study and hands-on ministry. In fact, one student defined a bad talk as one “that I could have just read … ‘here’s the facts.’”

Boomer communicators who practice these forms of authenticity will not speak down to Millennials (a fatal mistake) and will develop a powerful form of credibility based on not adopting a professional speaker persona. Ironically, as we become weak, our lives become the vehicle for our message, and God becomes stronger among us. Millennials can tell a communicator has this trait, “if they are real … if they speak from their heart.” A favorite example cited by one young women was Rob Bell, who “instead of teaching from a text book … is teaching us about life.”

5. When you say, “Let me illustrate that for you,” they think, “Cool, we like illustrations, but don’t just tell me, involve me.” The Millennials we know have a profound preference to a participant not just a recipient. Kate told us, for example, that a good communicator “must get me emotionally involved.” Another student noted that this connection takes root best when speakers spend time with young adults outside the presentation time, building relationships that become the foundation of their public credibility. Simple and sometimes one-to-one relationship skills pull Millennials into public presentations because they already feel a bond to the speaker. Media (Nooma videos are named most often) also support the sense of involvement by creating a multisensory experience. But complex methods are not necessary. Millennials have cited techniques as simple as writing something down as lending a strong sense that they are part of what is happening.

Boomer communicators will benefit from remembering that Millennials say the services they remember most “were those that we were a part of.” The precise way that involvement is achieved (Q&A, multimedia, prayer, etc.) is much less important than the principle that involved people will track with your message because they feel part of it. The courage to ask them for specific and regular feedback and to involve them in planning will be rewarded with even more involvement-friendly messages.

The fact that I am talking means very little in one sense. The thoughts in a listener’s mind can distort or block out everything I am saying, especially when we are communicating interculturally across generational lines. While Millennials have many traits common to all American audiences, they also have unique tendencies as an age cohort. While these tendencies are not destiny, understanding them can help older communicators translate their messages into words, images and forms that can involve Millennials in ways that stimulate spiritual growth. The definition of effectiveness that one student gave me describes your goal: “Whenever you feel sad that that person is done talking.”

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