Communication 101: What’s Getting in the Way?
At the end of his series on giving a great talk, Ray Evans offers a postscript. Here he focuses on the way a talk is delivered, heard and received. In other words, what pitfalls do you need to avoid so that the gospel message is clear?
In its simplest form, and from a human viewpoint, communication involves a transmitter, a message (or transmission) and a receptor. Understanding each in turn can help us improve our own communication when we stand up to deliver a talk.
Information theory teaches us that pure, undiluted, communication experiences are rare. Why? Interference or ‘noise’ can disturb the signal, and it will be received in a corrupted form which makes it so much harder to decode. ‘Lost in translation’ is a euphemism for this.
Linguistics shows us that decoding the message is a complex thing. What a message means to the transmitter, may have a very different significance for the receptor.
For our purposes, this is the preacher.
The apostle Paul wanted to make himself clear (Col 4:4). He wanted to be utterly faithful to his master as he, the ambassador, passed on the message entrusted to him (2 Cor 5:20). But more than faithfulness, clarity has that sense of directness.
How clear are we? Have we mastered ways of making the truth plain before all people’s consciences (2 Cor 4:2)?
Second, we must ask about the nature of the transmission. Is it a clear signal? What interference may create ‘white noise’ that blurs the message? We must do all we can to not cause distractions or a clash of communication elements.
Let me illustrate. 150 years ago, in his typically humorous way, C.H. Spurgeon in Lectures to my Students drew attention to the dangers of visual distractions in the pulpit. He has line drawings so that we clearly see what he means.
Spurgeon experienced too many preachers misunderstanding the significance of body language. He describes one man who had a habit of joining his hands behind his back under his coat and Spurgeon felt he looked like a peacock strutting around. Another man raised his hand in a gesture that from a side perspective he looked as if he were making rude signs to his audience; another was pugilistically summoning a fight. And on and on it goes.1
We want to do everything we can to cut down on ‘visual noise’. Ours is a message that needs to be heard. The point Spurgeon was making is that we don’t want the visual to distract from the primary need to hear it. Your clothing, platform lighting and the background behind you may all be sources of visual interference.
If you use PowerPoint slides when you preach, this needs even more careful attention. If the choice is between listening to you or looking at a slide, even a white blank slide, the slides will win every time. For even with a blank slide the audience will be thinking, ‘I wonder what is coming next?’
In the mind of the receptor, the visual always wins over the verbal. Voice and slides must work together and you must be absolutely clear which is the servant, and which is the master.
Then comes interference caused by ‘noise’ itself, the actual audio signal. If someone can't hear, or other noises confound the primary signal, the message is lost. Poor sound systems abounding with technical screeches, background hums, and crackles are really distracting.
The speaker can help with a proper control of their voice, too. Too loud for too long, and I won't hear the message – it feels like I am being shouted at or told off. Too soft and I have to strain to hear, so I give up. Too fast and my process speed is overloaded. Too slow and I may start to fill in the blank space with something else – such as the colour of someone's coat three seats ahead. Too squeaky and I'm thinking of mistuned violins. Too sonorous and I am sung to sleep.
Of course, we have the voice we are given, but we can gain greater command of its potential so that we don't clash verbal content with audio sound. You will know that if you shout ‘I love you’ to your spouse from two feet away they won't think (or more importantly feel) that at all.
As I look back I have regularly employed all these! No wonder preachers cry, ‘Who is sufficient?’ (2 Cor 2:16b).
So, the transmitter needs to ensure that visuals don't distract, and that the audio complements the actual message, the verbal content. Many preachers and churches could do a great deal more to help audiences.
Why not think about how you could cut down on the distractions next time your church meets?
Finally, the message is not ultimately, ‘What I (the speaker) have said’. What’s important is 'What I (the listener) think you mean.' Assuming the message actually gets through (given all of the above) the question the speaker has to ask is, ‘What does this mean to them?’
Just a couple of reflections here:
- The Lord Jesus honestly and realistically told us that the good seed (the word) would fall onto different types of soil (the listeners’ hearts). Some would be snatched away. Some would germinate, but soon be shrivelled. Some would grow but other plants would choke them, while some seed will bring forth fruit.
We must humbly recognise that only the Holy Spirit, and not we ourselves, can make this difference. The message will be ‘life to life’ for some, but ‘death to death’ to others, depending on the hearts of the hearers (2 Cor 2:16).
- This is matched with our responsibility to help our hearers as much as we can. Our gospel is not to be hidden by poor communication.
Tim Keller has really helped us by emphasising that in the West today, outsiders assume there are two ways to live. That is, they think there is a religious way, and an irreligious way. Most people are now in the second category. When they come across the former, they assume the message is: ‘You need to become religious like us, and give up your bad and naughty irreligious ways.’ That is how it is heard.
Keller explains that people interpret everything according to their pre-conceived ‘working model’. Anything which we say, or they see at church, will be placed within this interpretive grid, from which they make sense of things.
That means we need to work really hard when we communicate the gospel. Namely, we need to:
A. Build common ground and rapport, and express empathy with our audience (see Paul do this in Acts 13:16f; 14:15f; 17:22f).
B. Point out the problems of the religious way of life and thinking. Self-righteousness, pride, judgmentalism, doubt, unhappiness, introspection and guilt are regular experiences of religious people. As we explain why these result from ‘mere’ religion and not Christianity, the irreligious are surprised. They are not expecting this; they are expecting a telling off!
C. Make it crystal clear that Christianity is a genuinely different third way, a way of abounding truth and grace centred in Jesus Christ.
A Worked Example
Let me give an illustration. At Christmas time many churches hold carol services aimed at non-Christians. Often the talk is about ‘the real reason for the season’. A talk might be titled ‘Why Santa Claus will always let you down’, or ‘Getting wasted at Christmas won’t make you happy’, and so forth.
Now, there is truth in all of this and there is a right place to confront sin. But can you see how (unless we are super careful) anything like this gets heard? It comes over as the religiously superior and smug telling everyone else off for not ‘getting’ Christmas.
How easily we can make people squirm over their ignorance (‘As you all know Isaiah is referring to the Messiah in chapter 7’), or to their lack of church attendance (‘For those of you who come regularly, next week we will be starting a series in Zephaniah’), or to their irreligiosity (speaking disparagingly of a TV programme that most people will watch).
All this means the good news gets lost amidst the poor communication of not getting inside the head of our hearers. The gospel requires, and people desperately need, better communication than this.
So, transmitter, transmission and receptor. All three need careful attention.
1. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Baker, 1977 this edition). See Second Series, Lectures VI and VII, pp96-143.