I hate being talked down to, being treated as if I am inferior in some way to the one speaking to me. I see this often from preachers and other public speakers. The same goes for reading, when an author dot-to-dots a concept as if I, the reader, am incapable of tracking with his or her train of thought.
Some of this dislike is pure ego, a sense of self-importance. I simply like to think I am smart and my hackles rise when I feel intellectually demeaned. That’s more sinful than beneficial. But some is a basic reasonable desire to be respected and challenged. As one who writes and speaks I find myself regularly on the other side of this tension, as the one who might be doing the demeaning. How will I communicate in such a way to respect my audience and treat them as my peers instead of like marginally intelligent preschoolers?
Much of how to do this is nebulous, psychological, and relational rather than technique driven. It looks different from person to person and even from audience to audience. You will inevitably communicate differently to school children than to professors than to moms than to incarcerated felons – but not as differently as you might think. The suggestions below apply to all cases and have more to do with mindset than style or steps to take, and it is up to you, the communicator to determine how to apply them in every situation uniquely, but I hope they are helpful for those preach, teach, write, or otherwise publicly communicate.
If we get too caught up in what the audience needs we often lose sight of whatever truth we’re trying to communicate. Whether is in story, sermon, song, or the written page we owe it to truth to communicate it clearly. Are we doing everything in our power to present our subject so well and so clearly that the audience can’t help but benefit? Are we unraveling the knots on the listener’s or reader’s behalf? Does the audience sense your appreciation and care for the truth you are sharing or are you presenting as a tired, basic, worn out subject that you’ve moved beyond but their sad-sack selves need to hear? Communicate with respect for your subject and your audience will feel respected too because you are sharing something about which you care.
Many communicators share their thoughts as if the audience is a collection of Forrest Gumps who can’t keep up with a logical progression of thought or the occasional mental stretch. This is not a license to jump around or make leaps of reason. After all, that isn’t a progression. But if a communicator has done the work of putting together a presentation of ideas that is clear and tracks well then give the audience enough credit to assume they’re tracking with you.
*Speakers have the benefit of reading an audience and gauging what changes need to be made as they go – pace, explanation, etc. Writers should simply write as if the audience is as smart as they, themselves think they are.
Clarity can’t be assumed. That’s why I started with mental progression. It took you, the communicator, a certain amount of work and discovery to learn the concepts you are sharing. Clarity is both communicating those concepts well and sharing how you got there in a distilled, concise (but not dumbed down) form. Condescension is when you do this as if your audience can’t follow the same process you did. It is using small words even when you think in big ones and cutesy, boiler plate witticisms instead of more substantial explanations. Condescension often ends in shallow, tweetable sound bites rather than a real understanding of the truth you are trying to communicate.
Communicate with others as you would have them communicate with you. Put yourself in the seat of the listener or the mind of the reader and ask “would I want to interact with this?” This doesn’t apply to style as much as it does to tone. Are you giving them the honor as listeners/readers that you would like to have? It’s the best way to remove pretense. Are you respecting their intellect, their interest, their sense of humor? It’s awfully hard to know unless you can say that, yes, you would like this book or sermon or presentation. Ego makes this fuzzy; we all have a high opinion of ourselves, and a distorted one at that. But our own self-respect, when turned outward can be a blessing to others.
I often see speakers who, when talking to an audience they perceive to be their peers (fellow pastors , business leaders, etc.) have a very different tone than when speaking to a group of “normal folks” (lay people, employees, etc.). You can pick up on the same thing in books or articles. They function from the perception that peers are their equals and other people are lower. Peers can handle a challenge, some complexity, some hard-nosed reality but normal folks can’t. Nonsense. Knowing something others do not yet know or having experience they do not yet have says nothing about your inherent value in comparison to them. The job of the communicator is to share the full value of the ideas/experiences so that the audience has full benefit. To do this means you must be willing and able to hand your idea off to them as an equal so you must raise them in your estimation, lower your opinion of yourself, or both.