Communication 101: Loving Your Listeners
In this third part of Communication 101, Ray focuses on what people hear when you preach, not what you think they should hear.
Nancy Duarte in her studies of the 100 greatest speeches of all time was surprised to find some recurring themes.1
One was the common use of contrast. Second, she noted that in great speeches, there was a significant emphasis on empathy. The third thing she spotted was the employment of the right emotional fuel being poured in to their lives to enable the hearers, for example, to complete a task, to take a risk to change, or to overcome a feeling of failure.2Empathy and emotional fuel. Often the things we want to communicate seem so interesting or important to us that it is almost impossible for us to believe that they may not be equally important or interesting to other people. As we are met with blank faces, we ask ourselves, “What’s wrong with these people who didn’t understand?”
We so easily fall into the trap of thinking that we have made ourselves clear. Our meanings are so clear to us that it is hard for us to accept that they might not be so clear to those who interpret what we say.
Is it worth hearing?
“The first act of love in preaching is an act of self-denial – to become more interested in people than in the subject. That means giving up a love of knowledge and replacing it with a love for people.”3
We often forget that people pay close attention to things which directly concern them. Another person has put it like this:
“Talk to me about my concerns and you will have my attention. Talk to me about you and your concerns and you will have to work much harder to arouse my enthusiasm. So, if your message is about me and my interests, or my dreams, or my responsibilities, or my problems, make sure you say so. If, on the other hand, your message is nothing much to do with me, ask yourself whether I am the right person to be speaking to after all.”
“In order to gain attention the first golden rule is, always say something worth hearing. Nobody sleeps when he expects to hear something to his advantage. I have heard of some very strange things, but I never did hear of a person going to sleep while a Will was being read in which he expected a legacy, neither have I heard a prisoner going to sleep while the Judge was summing up, and his life was hanging in jeopardy.”
Calvin similarly commented:
“What advantage would that be if we were to stay here half a day and I would to expound half a book without considering you or your profit and edification? …We must take into consideration those persons to whom the teaching is addressed… For this reason let us note well that they who have this charge to teach, when they speak to the people, are to decide which teaching will be good and profitable so that they will be able to disseminate it faithfully and with discretion to the usefulness of everyone individually.”
We must connect the word to the people we are addressing. Peter Adam remarked:
“We must be absolutely committed to teaching and preaching the Bible, but to describe our ministry as teaching and preaching the Bible is to describe it in terms of its means, not its end. The purpose of our teaching and preaching of the Bible is to explain and commend the good news of God.”
As we seek to understand, feel for, and communicate to the changing context of our audiences, we also need to remember that they are active listeners, not passive blank tablets.
We are always tempted to ask the question: “What will my message do to this person?” Instead, we need to get into the habit of asking a more realistic question, even though it’s much more awkward: “What will this person do with my message?”
Because we don’t think like this, or ask ourselves that awkward question, we often fail to employ one of the great communication techniques previous generations used with great power. That is to verbalise, as part of the talk, the differing reservations and questions in the minds of the audience.
“You have heard it said… but I say to you” was the Lord Jesus speaking out loud what he knew his hearers were thinking, and engaging with them to great effect.
Our sermons are so often crammed with textual information and content that the confusion, objections, problems, failures, and fears in our hearers’ minds aren’t explicitly addressed. We may occasionally acknowledge a ‘defeater belief’, but without necessarily engaging with the deeper heart issues of their dreams, their idols, and the angst our listeners feel.4
As an example of a relentless pursuing and challenging of his hearers’ objections, may I commend to you Horatius Bonar’s brilliant little book, God’s Way of Peace.5 In chapter after chapter he verbalises their thinking, and then helps overcome the objections – demolishing the strongholds in their minds (2 Cor 10:4-5).
Due to a lack of attention to our hearers, and a concern to have content that is accurate and rich, have we perhaps lost the art and skill of engaging with our audiences as well as our forefathers did?
Partly in order to overcome this deficiency, Tim Keller encourages younger preachers to spend less time in the study, and more time with the people who are being addressed. He argues it will help them to have something to say from the Bible to the real people they encounter, and it will ensure that their preaching connects more effectively.6
More about that in part 4.
1. Nancy Duarte, What All Great Speeches and Talks Have in Common, The Biggest Communication Mistakes Preachers and Speakers Make, and How Speaking is Changing, accessed 30 Oct 2018.
2. Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez, Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies, and Symbols (Portfolio Penguin, 2016). See also Nancy Duarte, Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences (Wiley, 2010).
3. Mark Galli & Craig Brian Larson, Preaching That Connects (Zondervan, 2009).
4. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (Dutton, 2008), esp. pp3-114.
5. Horatius Bonar, God’s Way of Peace (this edition, Evangelical Press, 1968).
6. Timothy Keller, The Country Parson.