Communication 101: Mind Your Language
How can we engage our audiences more effectively? In this fourth instalment of Communication 101, Ray Evans considers the preacher’s use of words and illustrations.
It was CS Lewis who said:
“We must learn the language of our audience. You must translate every bit of theology into the vernacular. I have come to the conclusion that if you cannot translate your own thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts are confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood your own meaning.”
This does not come easily to us. Especially as we are educated in Latinised English. That means we have polysyllabic vocabulary and multiclausal sentences! So we get used to preaching in this literary style – especially if we write our sermons out in full.
Winston Churchill, Martin Luther and John Wesley knew this well.
Churchill, when writing, used a full repertoire of 25,000 words of Latin English. When he spoke he narrowed down to an Anglo-Saxon English range of 5,000 words. He said, “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat” not “Sacrifice, labour, sorrow, and perspiration.”1
Martin Luther said:
“A preacher should have the skill to teach the unlearned simply, roundly, and plainly…When I preach I regard neither doctors or magistrates, of whom I have over forty in the congregation. I have all my eyes on the servant maids and the children. And if the learned men are not well pleased with what they hear, well, the door is open.”
Adrian Burdon said of John Wesley:
“The simplicity of John Wesley's preaching was his glory. This simplicity had not been easily attained, but was the result of many years of effort… [He] read his sermons to an intelligent maid-servant who agreed to stop him every time he came to a word she did not understand. She shouted ‘Stop, sir!’ so often that Wesley became impatient. He schooled himself thereafter to express himself clearly and simply and was rewarded by the knowledge that the congregation could understand his message.”
So, how can we help ourselves? Shorter sentences (on the page or in your head) are a start. One expert said, “Wherever you find a comma, replace it with a full stop.”2
We may also connect to people by employing some of Jonty Allcock's 10 Guides to Connection which he presented at the 2018 FIEC Leaders’ Conference:
- Real Life
- Big Picture
Why not access that seminar to give yourself some fresh ideas?
Dull, boring, and predictable patterns of speech only serve to lull our hearers to sleep. We have to work hard to not induce stupor. The word of God is not boring. If someone came into the room with a double-edged sword, of all the emotions pulsating in your heart, boredom wouldn’t be one of them!
The fault may be with you or your hearers. If it is with them, it is your job to wake them up (Eph 5:14). If it’s you: don't stay like that. Fan into flame the gift God has given you to communicate Christ, and seek help so that you are not the cause of dullness in your church.
Cover with FOAM
One final comment about engaging with an audience is to understand the significance of FOAM in a talk. Simply put, FOAM is: Facts, Observations, Anecdotes, and Metaphors.
Facts: use some statistics, surveys, figures, or dates to help people relate what you say to their world.
Observations: news, reflections, relevant quotes, pithy sayings.
Anecdotes: stories, stories, stories. People are drawn into stories, either made up or true, and it helps to make it all much more personal.
Metaphors: “Is the church a cruise liner, a battleship, or a lifeboat?” This statement is a wonderful way to employ a powerful metaphor which may help really concentrate minds on mission. Spurgeon’s verbal fountain of metaphors and similes helped make him such a great communicator.
Illustrations have no place in serious books, and some assume the same is true for serious talks. But they are wrong.
The Master employed these ‘windows’ to let light in all the time. So did the Apostle Paul. Illustrations are not padding to fill in time when you haven't enough to say. They are the necessary connections between truth stated and explained, and truth applied and obeyed. They help hearers see what you are talking about.
You cannot put each type of FOAM into every point, but a good-to-great talk will have a variety of these spread through it. Have a look at your last talk – is the FOAM there, and how helpful was it? Remember – use this is to aid the impact of your message, not to parade your learning.
A Worked Example
If you want an example of all this being brought together, why not read John Chapman’s great little book on preaching.4 The ‘Big Idea’ is broken into points, each of which revolves around a State-Illustrate-Apply structure.
Chapman argues that talks should then be book-ended with a gripping introduction and a challenging conclusion that answers the key question, “So what?” and leads convincingly to the, “Now what?”
Do your talks start and end like that, with application all the way through? That’s something to chew on before we finish our mini-series on communication with ‘Prayer’.
1. David Pawson, Not as Bad as the Truth (Hodder and Stoughton, 2006), p87.
2. William Zinsser, On Writing Well (Harper Collins, originally 1972, this edition 2012).
3. Jonty Allcock and Ray Evans, Effective Communication (FIEC Leaders’ Conference 2018).
4. John Chapman, Setting Hearts on Fire (Matthias Media, 1999).