Catechesis

Your Next Talk Needs a Simple Narrative Structure

Is Your Next Talk Already Boring?

Testimonies are powerful because of their narrative structure. They have a flow to them that most talks, which are not based directly on human experience, simply do not have. And yes, most talks that you will hear (and maybe give) do not seem to bother with even a basic beginning, middle, or end narrative flow.

That is to say, most talks are usually a list of main ideas, coupled with supporting details, that have no sense of an overall, unified message. They are a mere grouping of individual, isolated elements connected to a topic. Some speakers, or certain occasions, may be fitting to use this approach. But, for the rest of the time, we evangelists and catechists should use testimonies, stories, and a simple narrative structure applied to the whole talk to help create the sense of drama, of meaning, and of flow.

Gifted speakers make connections from point to point in real, meaningful ways. It does not seem like artificial bridges between static content. The transitions need to make sense and work for your hearers. Do not let your audience get lost in trees and miss the entire forest. One way to prevent this from happening to your audience is to give it a simple narrative structure.

The Venerable Outline Method

The way I was trained to give a talk was the same way I was trained to write an essay in Philosophy class. You start with the venerable Roman Numeral Outline. First, you get your topic. Second, you try to come up with one or two goals for the topic. Next, you come up with three main ideas that develop the goals. Then, you write at least three supporting details for each main idea. Finally, when the innards are complete, you fashion a summary conclusion and brief introduction, plop them in their respective spots, and there's your talk.

Boom, you're a shining star among catechists. *Cough* 

Here's my problem with this approach. Outlines are good when they help you brainstorm and organize ideas. An outline can keep you coherent and tangent-free. But speaking is different from writing. Giving an essay-type talk following the outline will kill your audience's attention span, ruin the care they had for the topic, and forget any empathy they might have had for you as their speaker. In short, it is a boring method.

The Simple Narrative Structure

When you are telling a story, you know that it has to flow in a very direct, simple, and predictable pattern: beginning, middle, and end. We all know those awful storytellers who start halfway into a story and say, "No wait! I forgot to mention so-and-so and what he was doing up to this point." Bouncing back and forth, without that simple fluidity, kills a story. It kills your whole talk as well.

It is important to grab hold of the simple narrative structure when presenting your content. If you brainstormed using the outline, great! Use it as the muscle and flesh, but then attach it to the narrative skeleton that will keep your talk alive and moving.

Sure, there are times when a presenter need not have a narrative path to guide their talk. For instance, if it is a technical talk with a technical audience, and they have something written to follow along, you can get away with hitting point after point. It is appropriate then. But just because we can think of use cases where the Roman Numeral Outline talk is handy, it does not follow that we should always follow that model. In fact, we really, really shouldn't follow that model at all in evangelization and catechesis.

Jesus Had a Message

How did Jesus teach? Not how did He talk in His daily life, but when He was in full teacher-mode, what was His approach? Did he use examples, illustrations, and stories with a specific point? Or did he use bulleted lists, PowerPoints filled with notes, and unconnected, isolated details? Yep. Thought so. Parables are the easiest go-to example.

But even those times when Jesus spoke through many main ideas, like in the Sermon on the Mount, the whole thing was structured, fluid, and thematic. It progressed. It was dramatic. And the main point was, from a narrative point of view, that Jesus was showing us the new way to live as a child of our Father.

He (or Matthew) grouped His topics in powerful ways that would impact the hearer or reader. For example, Jesus systematically destroys old ways of thinking with His so-called "Six Antitheses". "You have heard it was said... but I say to you..."

If you can teach as one having authority and astonish all those who hear your 20 minute Sunday catechesis or 1 hour chastity talk, go for it. Otherwise, make liberal use of narratives!

Some Steps From Outline to Narrative

Take what I just wrote and, when you are planning your next talk, analyze it according to this simple narrative structure. Ask yourself these questions and really think about the answers. You don't like boring, disconnected talks, why should your hearers? It will take a lot of hard work to make your talk fit, but that's OK, because catechesis was never meant to be easy.

Beginning

  • Am I crafting a Beginning of the presentation that it draws people in?
  • Does what I say have meaning for my hearer, or just me?
  • Are my opening words really an introduction to the topic at hand? Do I introduce myself to the hearers? Or is it a half-thought out few sentences of "Thanks for having me" awkwardness?

Middle

  • Does your presentation mature through the process of delivering it? 
  • Are you developing points or just listing them in the Middle?
  • Does what you say have a fluid connection to the Beginning and the End of you presentation?
  • Are you addressing the thoughts and questions your hearers might be having from the Beginning of your talk?
  • Does your talk build up to something? Is it obvious what that something is?

The End

  • How will you End your talk? Or do you just run out of words and stop?
  • Is the End of the talk meaningful to the hearer?
  • Did the End of your talk nail the main point home?
  • Are you leaving the hearer with something to think about?
  • Are you leaving the hearer with something to change about their lives?
  • Did you have a goal for your talk, and did you hit it?
  • Is there a resolution for your audience to have?

Concluding Inspiring Post-script

I want to point out one thing about this article and the narrative structure of catechesis. You can see the simple progression from the beginning to the end of the article, but I didn't just leave it there. I gave you something important to do that will make this article more meaningful for you, the reader. In the User Experience community, this is called "a call to action". I left you with something tangible to do with the content that you heard.

Too often we are not preaching to convert, but to inform. If we craft our talks well enough and clear enough, we think we have done our jobs. But what is our hearer to do with the information we just gave her? We can never forget the application part of catechesis. Even if everything else in the talk was rock solid, without application, it is just an exchange of facts or data. It is not life-giving. It is not change-making. It cannot convert. So why are we still doing it this way?