How to Effectively Reach Teenagers With Your Message

Last weekend, I had to endure a five-hour prelicensing course to become a ‘safe, courteous, defensive, and drug- and alcohol-free driver’ in the great state of New York. There were 35 people attending that course, and I was one of four adults. The rest were teens, excited high schoolers about to get their first driver’s license.

I was irritated by how ineffective that course was. Not so much for me—I’ve had a driver’s license since 1997 so, believe me, I know how to drive—but for those teens. The course started with a 40-minute video on how alcohol affects our brains. In itself an important topic, especially for teens, but everyone was asleep after the first minute. The video must have been at least 15 years old judging by the hairstyles, clothes and music. It was an alcoholic’s worst nightmare, considering the constant images of people drinking and having fun (the man siting next to me confessed he was a former alcoholic and he agreed with me!). I don’t know, but it sure looked like drinking made you have a lot of friends and a lot of fun. Except for that part where you get arrested for drunk driving, obviously.

But it was more than that. The video explained in excruciating detail—and I’m talking about molecular level here—what alcohol does to your brain, why you react slower for instance. They kept showing poorly made animations with firing synapses or something. There was so much technical jargon that nobody except a neurosurgeon could have understood it. Even I was bored, and I have a healthy interest in how the brain works!

The two other videos that were shown were equally boring and ineffective. An old white guy in a suit telling us to use the ‘Smith system’ (a five-point system, which I have forgotten already) to become a defensive driver. There were looooong minutes of footage of some dude driving a car and explaining to us why he was changing lanes, or whatever. The other video was a driving test with questions so stupid the whole group laughed.

I’m explaining it to you in a bit of detail so you understand me when I say this: This was a very ineffective way to reach teens with a message. If NY state wants teens to become responsible drivers, this course failed miserably in achieving that goal. Here are some quick takeaways on effectively reaching teens with your message:

  • Make it culturally relevant: You really can’t use a video that’s more than 5 years old, except if you want them to laugh.
  • Use language they understand: Test drive your talk or video for a group, see if they understand it. Have someone read a transcript and circle any words he/she doesn’t understand. Extremely helpful. Also, do they really need to know all the theoretical details? Demonstrating how alcohol affects your brain is more effective than explaining why, if you ask me.
  • Use examples from their daily lives: Teens don’t learn as much from adults (especially boring talking white men) as they do from other teens. How much more powerful this video would have been if they had interviewed or shown teens who had learned valuable lesons the hard way!
  • Be realistic: The video about alcohol was plain weird—everyone drinking seemed to have a wonderful time. The guy they showed getting in his car was so dead drunk that it was completely unrealistic. How are you portraying sins? It’s OK to show the tempting side, but are you painting a fair picture that does justice to the complexity of some issues? With teens as the primary audience, I would have dedicated more attention to peer pressure for instance, or appointing a designated driver.
  • Choose one key message: Nobody can remember five points, not even if you give it a fancy name or make your points a nice alliteration. Effective messages have one key message, and everything must contribute to communicating that message. I watched 40 minutes of video, and I have no idea what the key message was, other than that alcohol affects your brain negatively. Even if they had chosen a relatively logical key message, such as ‘don’t drink and drive,’ the video would have been so much more effective.
  • Take your audience seriously: Make sure to adequately assess what level your audience is at. Don’t oversimplify when you don’t have to. The best thing is to aim slightly higher than where they are, so there’s stimulus to grow.

The next step for me is to take a road test. Can’t wait to see what lessons I can take away from that experience!  

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Rachel Blom
Rachel Blom has been involved in youth ministry in different roles since 1999, both as a volunteer as on staff. She simply loves teens and students and can't imagine her life without them. In youth ministry, preaching and leadership are her two big passions. Her focus right now is providing daily practical training through www.YouthLeadersAcademy.com to help other youth leaders grow and serve better in youth ministry. She resides near Munich in the south of Germany with her husband and son. You can visit Rachel at www.YouthLeadersAcademy.com

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