What Makes A Good Retreat Talk

The retreat talks are not intended to teach, though those listening may learn. They are not intended to convert, though they may result in conversion. They do not intend to be preachy, though they may convey the essence of the Good News. In witness talks, we are presenting the rich tapestry and texture of our lives, represented in our struggles, moments of personal richness, faith stories, and experiences of growth. The intent of every witness talk is to invite the other participants to look into their own experience so that they can understand the unique tapestry and texture of their lives.

The model witness talk is a realistic portrayal of life itself. Everyone has their story. It is through these stories that people encounter Jesus through the experiences of another.  In the stories that we tell in everyday life, we do not discuss life theoretically or abstractly, but we simply present it, allowing life to speak for itself. The stories are open-ended, so that the participants hearing them can make their own applications and find truth in their own lives.

A leader giving an effective witness talk story keeps in mind these key principles:  Stories are specific, not general; colorful, not bland; human, not idealistic; descriptive, not analytical; personal, not pious; genuine and real, not contrived and untrue; faithful and prayerful, but not preachy; engaging, yet not manipulative; deep, but not overly heavy. Here are some helpful hints to prepare your witness talk:

  • Look at your faith life and your experiences: Where has the theme of your talk been evident in your life story? Remember the events, the people, feelings, scenes, and slices of life that made those moments what they were. Move beyond the “this happened to me” to a deeper more reflective mode that addresses such questions as: How has this affected my faith? How have these experiences formed who I am today and my notion of Christ and God? What have these experiences challenged me to do with my life?
  • Use personal stories: Use rich language in you imagery, detail, and description.
  • Connect your stories to the theme of your talk, to what precedes and follows your talk. Be open, honest, and be your genuine self.
  • Invite your listeners to be involved, to dwell upon their own similar experiences.

Challenge your audience, offer questions, and build in moments of silence into your talk for participants to reflect upon those questions.


Misconceptions about retreat talks

As we prepare witness talks for a retreat, it is important to make sure that we, as leaders, do not fall into one of these common witness talk misconceptions. Even the best leaders fall into these traps on occasion. It is important to review these misconceptions before planning a witness talks and while reviewing the witness talk.


Misconception #1:“I must tell the heaviest and most difficult story of my life for my talk to be any good.” Be sure that you don’t confuse the depth of a talk with heaviness. You can deal with serious and important topics (depth) without necessarily telling stories about great pain and suffering (heaviness). If you have not personally worked and processed through an experience of pain in your own life, it is best for you not to share this experience in the context of your witness talk on the retreat, because the pain is still too fresh. Meet with the retreat director/leader to discuss your witness talk prior to the retreat and prior to sharing your talk at the team meeting.


Misconception #2: “I can fit the same story into any talk.” It is possible for retreat team member to be so intent on telling a specific story that they may want to fit it into their talk in a way that doesn’t seem appropriate. Sometimes, we may feel entitled to share a certain story in front of the whole group. However, a bigger impact is made when the stories from your life fit the talk; don’t make the talk fit the story.


Misconception #3: “I must tell only one story.” Some of the best talks convey their message by telling two or three unrelated stories. The stories are tied together by the theme of the talk. If you only tell one long story, other participants may not have had a similar experience, and so they will not connect into the witness talk.


Misconception #4: “I don’t need my talk on paper! I can share fine without referring to my talk on the paper in front of me.” You are asked to write out your talk so that the retreat director/leader knows what is going to be said and can determine if your talk fits the theme, but also so that you know the words that you want to say. Writing one’s talk is good preparation for the retreat. When you actually give the talk, be very familiar with it, so that you are making eye-contact with the retreatants most of the time and speaking in a conversational tone.


Misconception #5: “My talk is only good if people are crying, so the more emotional my talk is, the better it will be!” Crying is NOT the measure of a talk’s effectiveness. Letting other participants in on your feelings is a crucial part of any talk, but remember that people are touched in many different ways. The Wilderness witness talks call for straightforward honesty and simplicity that is often just as effective as dramatic emotion. Conveying important lessons that you learned from your experiences is probably more important and, in the long run, more helpful than conveying the intensity of the emotion. Additionally, if you are overly emotional, the attention will revolve around you, instead of the purpose of a talk, which is to allow the participants to look into their own life stories and experiences.


Misconception #6: “I need to tell my entire life story.” You are encouraged to use small portions of your life as examples to enhance your talk. Time does not allow for you to share your entire life story in 20 minutes. However, you are encouraged to use examples of key moments in your life story that really brings the retreat message to life for others.


Misconception #7: “Length is not important in my talk.” Your talk should be about 10-15 minutes long. With your song after the talk, the total time shouldn’t exceed 20 minutes. If it is too long, you lose people’s attention. If it is too short, you can lose effectiveness because people may not be able to enter into the experience on a deeper level.


Misconception #8: “I love God and stuff, but Church is boring.” The retreat director/leader is responsible for helping team members communicate effectively about their faith and participation in Church. He/She will help you with this. Witness talks on retreats are about what your faith, discipleship, and church mean to you. This retreat is specifically Catholic in focus, so your sharing needs to reflect that reality.