Great Communicators

Dr. James Emery White

There has been a fair amount of reflection on the life and legacy of Ronald Reagan of late, generated by the centennial celebration of his birth on February 6, not to mention Presidents Day on February 21.


Reagan was the 40th President of the United States (1980-1989).  From "Reagonomics" to "Morning in America," Reagan was known for many things, but perhaps chiefly as the Great Communicator.


And it was because of his abilities as a communicator that he is so widely heralded as a leader and an agent of cultural change.


The truth is that anyone wishing to influence culture should aspire to become a master communicator, for it has marked most of our world's shaping personalities - for better or worse.  From Martin Luther King, Jr. to Abraham Lincoln, Hitler to Hussein, communicators affect culture more than non-communicators.


It's true for those who wish to impact the culture for Christ as well.  C.S. Lewis was arguably the greatest apologist for the twentieth century.  He had this to say about his efforts to communicate:


"People praise me as a ‘translator,' but what I want is to be the founder of a school of ‘translation.'  I am nearly forty-seven.  Where are my successors?  Anyone can learn to do it if they wish...I feel I'm talking rather like a tutor - forgive me.  But it is just a technique and I'm desperately anxious to see it widely learned."


Lewis is right.  Effective communication is not difficult.  So what does it entail?  Let's assume that what you wish to say is biblically based.  Let's also assume you have something prophetic to say to the culture in which we live.  What's next on the agenda?


I would argue for the following:


First, that you are relevant.  I know the word is tired, and is often a whipping boy for those who feel that contemporary communicators are swapping relevance for orthodoxy.  But in truth, relevance has nothing to do with watering things down.  It simply means that you avoid giving a 19th or 20th century message to a 21st century audience, particularly in regard to application, vocabulary and illustrations.


A good communicator is also practical.  For a talk to be practical simply means that the listener can apply it, and is not left wondering how.  Credibility also looms large for communication.  You have to be believed to be heard.  Credibility will include such things as accuracy and personal integrity.


Good communicators also use stories, pictures, images, analogies, props or media to help convey their points.  People think visually, and they craft their thought in terms of images. 


Another mark of effective communication is engaging in a way that feels dialogical, and builds bridges of identification.  A good communicator will pause every now and then and say, "Now right about now, you're probably thinking...", or "If you're like most people, this instantly raises the question of...", or "Ever felt like that?"  I believe it was Arthur Miller, who wrote such plays as The Crucible and Death of a Salesman, who said that success for him is when someone could sit in the audience, watch one of his plays, and say, "That's me up there."


Good communicators are also simple.  Not shallow, mind you, but simple.  They put truth on the bottom shelf.  C.S. Lewis was brilliant, and could have spent his career writing for fellow academics.  Instead, he wanted to write for the average person.  As a result, his influence was ten-fold.


Few communicators have captured the attention of an audience as dramatically as Winston C. Churchill, and one of his defining marks was simplicity.  He believed that a speech should sound the way you talk, simple and conversational.  His entire philosophy of public communication was to have a strong beginning, express one theme, use simple language, have lots of illustrations, and end emotionally. 


Once after he spoke, an individual confronted him and self-righteously stated, "Prime Minister, I was very shocked that in your speech you actually terminated a sentence with a preposition."  Churchill replied, "That is pedantic nonsense...up...with which...I shall not put." 


Mark Twain made a similar point by telling of a Missouri farmer who ran five times for the state legislature without a single victory.  In his speeches he referred to himself as "your humble aspirant," his audiences as "my enlightened constituents," and his vision as "obtaining a mandate" for his "legislative mission."  Then one day his cow kicked him in the teeth, knocking his front teeth out, forcing the farmer to speak words of only one syllable.  As a result, he won his next election and continued getting reelected.


A final mark of effective communication is that you are authentic.  Authenticity is no more - and no less - than being a person who can be believed, accepted, trusted, and relied upon to be that which is as presented.  I recently talked with a woman who had been unchurched for seventeen years before coming to Meck.  I asked her what it was about our team of communicators that had impacted her.  I was surprised that she did not even have to pause.  She said, "I never felt 'preached to.'  Instead I felt 'talked to.'  I could identify with you as people.  You shared your struggles, your life experiences, in a way that I could relate to.  You didn't come pretending to have your act together, talking down to everybody."


So if you want to improve as a communicator, be relevant, practical and credible; tell stories, be dialogical, simple and authentic.


Then, listen to great communicators who do this.  Get five or six speakers who you sense know what they're doing, and go to school on them.  Listen to how they manage material, how they open and close their talks, the manner in which they admonish and confess, illustrate and inspire. 


Because while we celebrate great translators like Lewis, he was right; the more pressing issue is where are his successors?


James Emery White





Peggy Noonan, When Character was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan.


Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis.


James C. Humes, The Sir Winston Method: The Five Secrets of Speaking the Language of Leadership.