Keys to Effective Communication

The heart of the righteous studies how to answer,
But the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil.
-Proverbs 15:28

One of the outward signs of righteous living is a commitment to discretion in how we answer, in how we communicate. Our very intelligence is both defined and limited by language and the degree to which we can effectively communicate our thoughts. Not surprisingly, numerous studies have found a correlation between poor vocabulary and poor behavior.* Remember, even our thoughts are formed in words, and what and how we think determines who we are (Proverbs 23:7).

That being said, we may also be well served to ask ourselves why these two phrases are paired together as being diametrically opposed. For those of us who have lived a while, experience has likely taught us that we’ve committed our worst errors and offenses of speech when we didn’t first consider our words. How then might we communicate righteously and effectively? In life in general, and for leadership in particular, good communication is absolutely essential. After all, the Bible tells us that where there is no clear vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18). How many dreams and genuine callings of God are out there perishing because no one gave them a clear vision?

There are, it seems four essential keys to effective communication.

1. Have something GOOD to say
This is perhaps what one might call a profound grasp of the obvious. However, we must always remember that greatness often is not comprised of doing extraordinary things, but rather of doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. It isn’t necessarily hard to do as much as it is just as easy not to do. One of the major reasons why we can find ourselves without anything good, interesting or constructive to say is that we simply didn’t take the trouble to prepare ourselves to be fruitful in our speech.

In Ephesians 6:15, we are told to have our feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace, and so we must understand that to effectively communicate the gospel and anything else, preparation is absolutely essential. As one very wise man once said, ‘To be more interesting, you must first be more interested.’ Christ’s message was so captivating that even soldiers sent to arrest him came back empty handed saying that they’d never heard a man speak like Jesus. Why was this? He’d prepared all his life for the ministry God had called him to, and he was completely committed to it. He came with one purpose: to redeem Israel, and consequently, as many as who would believe in him, and he was so interested in this goal that he was willing to die on a cross for it.

When you are thoroughly interested, your preparation will be deliberate and enthusiastic. In sales, people often say that enthusiasm sells, and this is absolutely true. Genuine interest, not only in your subject matter, but in your audience will help you to convey what you need to say more clearly and more powerfully than you ever could otherwise. It will also drive you to study your subject matter, to research it extensively, so that when you do speak, what you say in the time you have to say it will only be the tip of the iceberg, and you will be able to say it simply. As another wise man said, ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’

In addition to being prepared to have something good to say, you must also pursue continuous growth, both in terms of ordinarily life and your spiritual life. A two year old may say something clever, cute, or funny, but he’s unlikely to communicate as effectively as the sixty year old grandmother who raised ten children after having to care for most of her siblings. Your effectiveness as a communicator is comprised of more than just the content of your message; it is also a matter of the depth of your experiences and how you’ve chosen to use them.

2. Learn to say it well
While it is of the utmost importance to have something good, interesting, or useful to say, we must also learn to say it clearly and effectively. Some of this will come through repetition. Like the old quip about how to get to Carnegie Hall, the secret is ‘practice.’ This repetition must be done with the objective of improvement, or the only result will be memorization.
Another factor in saying it well is gravity. When you communicate, does the weight of your experience and authority come through? To some extent this can be faked, but sooner or later charlatans are found out, and in any case, it is best to be yourself and allow your message to gain its gravity as you grow and mature, both as a person and as a communicator.
Style can be important, and can indeed make your communication more interesting and captivating, but should never be used as a substitute for quality of content. The more astute listener will probably be offended or annoyed by what may come across as image being passed off as substance.
Vocabulary is also key to being able to communicate well. This doesn’t mean that you have to use big, ‘fancy’ words, but rather that you ought to use words appropriate for what you intend to communicate. As stated before, limited vocabulary has been found to be linked to poor behavior. The worse the vocabulary, the worse the behavior. Why is this? Poor vocabulary often means poor communication and poor thinking, which will both lead to poor judgment. Our words are tools that we use to interpret and express ideas, experiences, environments, and so on. If our tools are limited or not skillfully used, then our ability to interpret and express will be likewise poor. The goal of the effective communicator, therefore, is to influence the thinking and judgment of his audience in a good way. To do this, we ought to use our vocabulary not to impress, but to express: we must be clear.
Some of us may be particularly gifted, and often we may deceive ourselves that it is enough to simply be gifted. A man can send a woman flowers, but what kind of flowers did he send? Also, if there’s no card, the purpose and intent of the flowers may not be clear. If there is a card, what does it say, and how does it say it? If you think this doesn’t matter, consider this scenario:

Richard is struck by a car, which drives off. A bystander calls an ambulance, and he’s taken to the hospital. As it turns out, he hadn’t been looking where he was going because he’d just lost everything through a business failure and was very depressed. Even Richard’s friends wouldn’t return his calls, because they’d invested in his business to their loss. Three days later, he regains consciousness, and shortly after, a delivery man walks in and sets down a lovely arrangement of flowers, and wishes him a speedy recovery. A smile spreads over Richard’s face, and suddenly he feels hopeful because somebody cares. He reaches for the card, and it reads: Pay up or die.

The moral of this little story is that your gift, however great or small, can’t possibly communicate the entirety of your message.

Brevity is also vital. It is entirely possible in sales to lose the sale simply by having spoken too long. Children are great to practice this habit with. Learn to get straight to what you have to say, so that what you say is dense with content and rich in substance. If you’re scheduled to speak for thirty minutes, prepare sixty minutes of material and then get it down to thirty, but speak for twenty two minutes. Most audiences are quite pleased when a presentation takes a little less time than they expected it to. Let’s face it, it’s better to have people saying, “I wish he could have spoken longer,” than “I wish he were done already.”

3. Know and read your audience.
Learn to listen, not just to what people are saying, but how they are saying it, and even what they are not saying.
“Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.” (Pr. 15:32)
Not everyone’s feedback will be a true and accurate measure of the calibre of what you’re saying, but even the worst and most biased of your critics may have something useful to say if you develop a better ear for criticism that’s pointed in your direction. Most of us can handle praise; truth be told, most of us thoroughly enjoy praise. However, if we are to grow and improve, then we must learn to likewise savor even the harshest criticism. When communicating with others, we must also learn to read what we see, whether we’re in a conversation, or speaking to large groups. In fact, I’ve found that the least polite feedback is sometimes the most honest. Always remember that courtesy is NOT consensus, and kindness is not acceptance. Sometimes people will politely listen without giving a single clue that they disagree or find what we say to be uninteresting, and we walk away thinking that we were fascinating when in fact we were quite the opposite.

4. Intensity
There can be a great difference between the words chosen to communicate and the emotion put into them. Experts on public speaking will often say that you should put YOU into what you say. There is some truth to that. However, for the Christian leader it seems better to that we put Christ and who he intended you to be into what you say. That being said, learn to measure your emotions. Learn to value the emotional content of your life experience. Someone who has walked through painful experiences is far more likely to be able to speak to the hurting in a way that will reach them than someone who is merely looking to expand his audience by trying a new subject. Weigh your experiences, measure them carefully in relation to what you are trying to communicate, and then choose your words well.

This doesn’t mean that everything you say has to be intense, fiery, or shouted from the rooftops, but rather that the effective communicator will learn to be appropriate in intensity. Don’t shout what ought to be whispered. Don’t scold when advising is enough. Like style, this is never a substitute for substance, but rather the intensity with which you present your subject ought to be a result of its content and its intent.
*Bental, B. and Tirosh, E. (2007), The relationship between attention, executive functions and reading domain abilities in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and reading disorder: a comparative study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48: 455–463. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2006.01710.x

Miles, S. B. and Stipek, D. (2006), Contemporaneous and Longitudinal Associations Between Social Behavior and Literacy Achievement in a Sample of Low-Income Elementary School Children. Child Development, 77: 103–117. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2006.00859.x