Monday, February 2, 2015

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #17 (The Six Über Skills of Seminary - Part 5 - Speaking)

SKILL #5 – Speaking: Communicating Well

Fear of speaking is a common thing with which many people struggle. Which is why I have listed it as one of the Six Über Skills of Seminary. It’s likely the case that you need to improve in this area. Am I right? In fact, I’ll go one step further and suggest that nearly everyone I know could stand to improve in this area, myself included, particularly as a “professional communicator” who speaks every week when I preach and teach in a local church.

Now, perhaps you participated in speech and debate events in high school or college. Or you have had other opportunities to hone the craft of communicating well. Some people have had those experiences, but many people have not. You will likely need to work and practice at communicating well.

The reason communicating well is important is because the stakes are high: few things are more important nowadays than raising the level of discussion on matters of faith, either in churches or the academy. And communicating in an engaging way just makes it that much easier for people to engage with our ideas and thoughts, whether in a sermon or lecture, or if we are presenting at an SBL/AAR conference.

So let’s spend a few moments thinking through some rules of thumb for communicating well. We won’t be exhaustive of course, but I’ll try to leave you with a few helpful thoughts to get you thinking about this important topic.

Rule #1: When communicating, have a point and frame it well

Engagement is predicated on more than just you presenting data, facts, or knowledge. Engagement is predicated on you framing and contextualizing your information so people can “get it.”

Back before I entered seminary, I worked as a biologist at a university. I once heard a story while in the lab that in the 19th-century, a critic of Charles Darwin’s said that, in writing the Origin of Species, Darwin should have just “put his facts before us and let them rest.” In other words, Old Charlie should have just laid his raw data out there on the table and let us figure it out for ourselves.

Darwin replied:
About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize [M.D., my emphasis], and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”
Darwin’s point is manifold; primarily, he means that gathered data need to be pressed against a hypothesis or thesis one is meaning to advance or test in order to be interesting. Otherwise, we are just “counting gravel.”

Secondly, he means that the best (in his case) science is communicated as a narrative. Meaning, most anything that is interesting is going to be communicated in such a way that you will tell a story. Darwin’s point, if he was here to make it, was that data and hypotheses without a narrative ignores the fact that humans learn from stories.

Data without hypotheses and a narrative is like a stranger at an airport showing you a slide show of a cross-country trip they have just taken. You’re left wondering, “where is this going for crying out loud?”

Of course, the reverse is true as well: Hypotheses and narrative without data is like an evening listening to free verse. Good luck with that.

Communicating well, speaking, even blogging well, works best when it is telling a story, particularly one which is advancing a thesis (or more basically, has a point). In other words, a story that matters and is going somewhere; a narrative that has a point or a purpose.

Rule #2: Everyone needs practice to communicate well

So let me confess something to you up front which will call your attention to the need for caring about communicating well: Seminary will, for the most part, not do a very good job of preparing you to be a good communicator. Sure, you might have a class or two where the art of communicating is spoken about – perhaps a homiletics course, etc. – but if you really want to be an effective communicator, you’re going to have to do some leg work on your own. It’s important to realize this early in your career.

I’ve grappled with this deficit in my own career already. Let me give you an example of some of the things I have learned in the “work-a-day” world of the church in which every week I teach two classes and deliver a Sunday morning sermon. Note, I’ve learned these things outside of seminary.
  • I’ve learned how to effectively start and end a sermon, class, etc. N.B. I said effectively. Effectiveness came with practice. 
  • I’ve learned how to develop the middle part of my address by selecting the right material (quotes, stories, statistics, etc. and deliver it appropriately depending on my audience). 
  • I’ve learned how to make sure my materials make sense to more than just me. This might seem obvious, but let me tell you, when you first make the move from seminary to the church (if that is your path), this is not at all obvious. And for some folks in the church, you might come off like a living, breathing, walking systematic theology text that they cannot understand. 
  • I’ve learned how to use visual aids more effectively. 
  • I’ve learned to overcome anxiety, to relax when I can tell I’ve made a point that is not really sticking, and I’ve learned better how to communicate with my eyes, hands, and body language. 
  • I’ve learned how to communicate more effectively in special speaking situations, such as academic conferences, funerals, weddings, and meetings where conflict is being mediated. 
  • I’ve learned how to better “speak on the fly” – situations where someone has asked me to “say a few words” and I’ve needed to improvise some remarks.  
  • So the work of communicating well will likely take place outside of your formal education. It will be something you will likely develop OJT – in the job.
Now, whether you’re dealing with one person or two thousand people, the ability to transmit your stories, ideas, papers, etc. in a coherent and compelling fashion is one of the most important skills you can ever develop. And in an age of information glut, communicating well is more important than ever. Communication is the currency of the realm, so to speak. And if you are not going to practice communicating well in seminary, you’re going to have to practice it somewhere else. And this will take some initiative on your part. But the effort to make your information, your work, your research, your sermon study, etc. accessible is worth it. Trust me. Which brings me to the next rule…

Rule #3: Communicating well means being accessible

So, be accessible. Let me illustrate with an observation from my scientific life. There was once a time, a long time ago, when scientists communicated their discoveries to a fascinated world through popular books and lectures. Galileo’s Dialogues, after all, was a gripping good read, even as it helped loosen the grip of church authority and open an Age of Discovery. The darn thing was accessible.

But most scientific stuff was…not. Problematically, it is still not today. Scientists don’t often do a great job of communicating their stuff.

But there are bright spots other than old Galileo. Fast forward a few hundred years and another fellow came along, writing and speaking about remarkable stuff. His name was Carl Sagan. And he was communicating his stuff in books written with wit and concision, accessible to anybody with the patience to crack a book and relax for a while.

Now, it’s interesting the reaction to his “accessible” writings. Lots of people loved it. Some did not. Sagan often received scorn for his accessible stuff; not just from know-nothings, but from the folks who could best appreciate his message: the scientific community themselves. Why was this? It’s because Carl Sagan was a ground-breaking popularizer of science at a time when most of the Academy couldn’t be bothered. And it was his often lonely voice that helped pave the way; that made communicating science with vigor, wit, and panache a respectable enterprise. Carl Sagan did it right.

And it will be your job to do it right, too: to communicate well. Above all else, it will be your job to be accessible.

Now, you might be thinking, “well, I’m not a scientist, so accessibility will not be a problem the ways it is for those folks.” Yes, well, once you hear a few sermons from recent seminary graduates, you might be disabused of such an assumption.

Someone might look up recordings of my early preaching. That’ll teach you that even seminary grads can be inaccessible. Ask my church.

The point is: be accessible.

Rule #4 The Zen Aesthetic

The title of this rule comes from Garr Reynold’s excellent book, Presentation Zen. Reynolds is a communications expert and has been instrumental in shaping the gestalt of many of the tasty TED talk presentations you’ve seen on the Net, social media, etc. Not to say that he was directly involved with the making of those presentations, of course, but he was part of the inspiration. Do yourself a favor and do an Amazon search on Garr Reynolds and check out his books. You’ll thank me later.

Anyways, since most talks or presentations are enhanced with visual aids, this rule is meant to help remind you that sometimes our presentations can be overwhelming, ugly, and unhelpful – and we should care about that.

There he recommends the following in his “Zen approach” to presentations:
  • Simplicity
  • Subtlety
  • Elegance 
  • Be suggestive rather than descriptive or obvious 
  • Be natural (have nothing artificial or forced) 
  • Have empty space (negative space)  
  • Have stillness and tranquility 
  • Eliminate the non-essential
OK, that all sounds fine, but what does it all mean? Well, he uses a brilliant illustration to advance his thesis – a comparison of the presentation styles of Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs. Let’s just say, their two visual approaches to presentations were…different. Frankly, you’d be best served by letting Reynolds guide the comparison of Gates and Jobs himself, so here is the link, go and see what I mean:

Note, the comparison is a bit dated. But brilliant nonetheless, and helpful for understanding this rule.

Rule #5 Find Role Models and Grok What They Are Doing

Good speakers abound and it’s relatively easy to find those who communicate really well. My advice is to find some good role models and see what they are doing.

Can I recommend a few?

One I have already mentioned: Steve Jobs. There’s lots of stuff on Jobs on YouTube, so go have a field day. Consider how he conveys his vision in his talks, and how he communicates it so clearly and colorfully. His reputation was well-earned.

Another great communicator: Bill Clinton. Sometimes listening to the former President speak is like listening to jazz. Go see if I’m wrong.

Just to balance things, next consider New Jersey senator Cory Booker. Google him and see what you think – a great communicator. Usually he exudes positive energy, too. This is an important lesson for those of us who occasionally communicate in difficult environments. Remember, he does too.

We could also mention Malala Yousafazi, Nelson Mandela, Pope Francis, and even, to show my nod to New Jersey things once again: Gov. Chris Christie.

Next, consider Googling “best TED talks” and feasting your eyes and ears. There will be lots to be learned there.

Now, consider some communicators who leave a bit to be desired. I think of two former Secretaries of Defense: Donald Rumsfeld and Chuck Hagel. Plenty of no-no-not-that-way stuff to be considered with those two.

Or consider Kanye West.

You get the point.

Emulate great communicators. Don’t emulate bad communicators.

Good luck. And keep practicing.