We have become a very “wordy” world. Words convince us to buy and sell, that we are loved, that we are in danger, and that we really, really, really, need what they have to offer. Some people are called “wordsmiths” because they make up new words or redefine an existing one.
If we do not have something to say at a critical moment we may be seen as deficient. When topics are discussed, our silence can be seen as ignorance. Our opinion may be sought when we really do not have one but feel pressured to say something.
Into this world, leaders are thrown. If they are not careful, they will fall into the trap that “words alone” can bring.
“When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Prov 10:19).
Instead of words, the leader has to think in terms of communication. A University of Indiana study came up with the following study results:
After thirty days, students remember:
10% of what they hear
15% of what they see
20% of what they hear and see
40% of what they discuss
80% of what they do
90% of what they teach to others
That should frighten you if you preached a message this week where you only used words. Looking back at your last message, how did you do? Did you add a visual illustration, interactive opportunity or immediate application that required some form of action? With this understanding, we realize that communication is an essential leadership skill. Paul listed it as one of his requirements for leaders.
“Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,” (1 Tim 3:1-2, emphasis mine, not just able to talk, you only remember 10% of what you hear).
But even before Paul, Jesus tackled the challenge of communicating God’s Word and leaving us something that would still be understood generations later. Jesus used a twofold approach to address the challenge.
“For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it” (Jn 12:49, emphasis mine).
Too often we only focus on the “what” and forget the “how.” The “how” determines if what we say will be understood and retained. Without the “how”, our words will disappear from the listener before its desired effect takes place.
Matthew 13:19 says, “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path” (emphasis mine).
The “how” also needs to take into account one of the biggest obstacles in communication, the context to context hurdle. When we train teams for short term mission trips, we are usually going to a different climate than what we typically experience; this creates a context challenge. On the coastal side of the state of Washington, eighty degrees Fahrenheit is a hot day and thirty degrees is a cold day.
If I use the word hot (to explain El Salvador) I have to explain it by telling them to get in the bathroom, turn the shower on full hot, do not turn on the exhaust fan, then start vigorously exercising for ten minutes. Once they are dripping in sweat, they can now understand the word that they thought they already knew: “hot.”
You see Jesus communicating this way in Luke chapter 15. He sees in His crowd shepherds, women, and parents. He tells the same story three different ways so that everyone there understands (lost sheep, coin, and son). That is the “how” that we must master to be communicators. Jesus, although a carpenter, always used examples from His audience and not His carpentry experience to explain the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the parable of the seed and the sower (Mt 13), I can almost guarantee that Jesus shared the parable while someone was planting a field within full view of Jesus and His audience. If it was not a full participation, visual example, it was often an interactive discussion, as when the Pharisees asked if taxes should be paid to Caesar (Mt 22:17-22).
The following examples are all ways I have helped the audience connect with the message. Break a vase to talk about how we often feel. Blindfold someone and have a friend guide them through a maze to simulate how the Holy Spirit can guide us. Wrap someone’s hands together with masking tape to simulate how easy it is to break a habit when you first start (one wrap) but how difficult it is to stop after a month (thirty wraps). Have the largest scar contest to begin a talk about wounds of the heart. Have a very mismatched arm wrestling contest where the apparent loser wins because the judge does not let go and helps; simulating the grace we receive when we obey even if we do not think we can succeed. Build a mini-coffin to really bury the sins on a cross that fits inside.
The communication skill is not just for sermons or teachings. We are called upon to counsel, cast vision, set goals, make plans, and chart the course for the ship we are leading. For these tasks here are some key principles to guide us in the essential skill of communication.
Do not make promises you cannot keep. Many a weathered sign exists on a piece of property announcing the future site of a church building that may never take place. Those unkept promises sicken the heart and soul of an organization.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (Prov 13:12).
You must do your homework and research before you make announcements and set accomplishment dates. Until you have the necessary information, “I don’t know” is often the best answer that you can give.
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish’” (Lk 14:28-30).
I have also encountered leaders who think out loud but do not tell their audience that they were just processing information. The hearers take the words as direction and act upon the leader’s incomplete thoughts. The leader is changing the direction of the ship without realizing it.
Your communication also has to take into account how large of an audience you are communicating with. I can gather my family around and we can discuss, explore, and pick an option for our next vacation in a few hours. If it is a congregation, anything new will take months of asking questions, exploring options, discussing the possibilities, and interaction to come up with a comparable decision.
The bigger the boat the slower it turns. You must communicate often the little changes and steps of progress to keep everyone on board and on the same page. If the boat is small, then you need to communicate clearly so you do not lose people overboard if you turn too quickly.
As complex as this can now seem, Scripture is full of reminders to keep us growing in the area of communication. Almost twenty percent of Proverbs deals with communication, the book of James is a wealth on the topic, and Jesus is the ultimate communicator as He took the eternal, heavenly things, and communicated them to us in ways that we still understand today.
He did not fall into the trap of easy but always what is best for the audience. If we take that perspective too, the “what” and the “how” of our words will have their ultimate impact. Like all skills there is a learning curve to the challenge. Let others know what you are doing and have them critique, encourage, and applaud your efforts as you develop the essential skill of communication as a leader.
The New International Version of the Bible has been referenced.
This article “Communication As An Essential Leadership Skill” by Mark Schaufler was first published in the May-June 2011 issue of Eagles VantagePoint magazine (www.vantagepoint.com.sg). Used with permission.