Innovative Ministry
Know Your Audience: 8 Principles for Speaking Effectively in Any Situation
Speaking effectively has more to do with how well you listen than how much you talk.

You knew your audience.

That was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received in ministry.

It happened after speaking at a Prayer Breakfast at a US Army base in Germany that was in the process of being closed.

One of the military chaplains pulled me aside. “Thank you for that talk,” he said. “You knew your audience. It’s unusual for a civilian speaker to understand who he’s speaking to and what we’re going through. What you said really helped.”

I was grateful, honored and stunned. I’ve never been in the military. I don’t come from a military family. I’d never even set foot on an active military base before that morning.

So I asked the chaplain why it had been helpful. Then I sat down and reverse-engineered the entire event to find out how it had come out that way.

What I discovered were 8 principles that I had fallen in to. Principles that I will now follow with purpose whenever I speak to any group, but especially to a group I’m unfamiliar with.

1. Show Up

How many opportunities do we miss because we don’t say ‘yes’ to them?

Sometimes we say ‘no’ because of scheduling issues. Sometimes the situation doesn’t seem to be valuable. But here’s the simple truth. Nothing will ever happen if we don’t show up for it.

Nothing will ever happen if we don’t show up for it.

Showing up for this talk wasn’t easy. Not only did we have to raise the funds to fly to Germany (thanks to my friends at Cornerstone and many readers of this blog for helping!) but, while driving to the base, our rental car broke down on the side of the highway.

It would have been very easy to say ‘no’ at many points along the way. “It’s too expensive to fly to Germany,” “I can’t take that much time away”, “we’re stranded on the side of the highway.” But we didn’t do that. With the help of friends, we kept pushing through the challenges and did what we were asked to do.

If you want to be a writer, write for anyone who asks. If you want to be a speaker, accept every invitation. No matter how small.

If you want to be a writer, speaker, singer and so on, you have to write, speak or sing for an audience. Saying ‘no’ to any invitation is an option for the privileged few. Until then, nothing happens if we don’t show up for it.

2. Ask Questions

The night before the Prayer Breakfast, I told our host what I was planning to talk about. She gave me an ‘Okay, I guess you could talk about that’ smile, so I pushed a little.

I asked a few questions about the situation on the base. Exactly who would be at the breakfast? What challenges were they facing? How is closing down a base different from their usual assignments?

After a 20 minute chat, I went to my room and tossed out the talk I had planned. It wasn’t right. They didn’t need it. I changed my talk from what I wanted to say to what they needed to hear.

I changed my talk from what I wanted to say to what they needed to hear.

Yogi Berra famously said “You can observe a lot by watching.” You can also hear a lot by listening – and asking questions.

It turns out that speaking effectively has more to do with how much you listen than how well you talk.

3. Acknowledge Your Ignorance – But Don’t Dwell On It

I’m not an expert on the military. So I didn’t pretend to be.

People with expertise can spot a poser. As a minister, there are fewer things more cringe-worthy than hearing a non-minister speak at a pastors’ conference who spouts all their spiritual bone fides to impress the room. It never works. Do what you know and leave the rest.

But don’t spend too much time there. Your acknowledgement of ignorance can be as simple as a sentence.

Be honest with your audience. Saying “I don’t know” can create as much trust as sharing what you do know.

4. Find Common Ground

I was a civilian speaking on a military base, so that made me a stranger. But I was speaking to Americans who had chosen to attend a Prayer Breakfast. God and country. We had that in common.

Once you find common ground, it’s a short step to the next principle, which is…

5. Speak from Your Strengths

If they’ve asked you to speak, it’s because they think you have something of value to say.

For me, the invitation was because of my book, The Grasshopper Myth. So I was there based on my work in a small church and with small church pastors.

Their military base was closing down. It’s one thing to work hard for growth. It’s quite another situation to work hard to close something down.

Working hard, but seeing shrinking numbers. Hmmm… I wonder who else might know what that feels like?

That’s why I was there. Not to speak about small churches or to small church pastors (although the chaplains in the room qualified for the title) but to speak from my experience into their experience about how to handle the emotional toll of working hard, but seeing shrinking numbers.

6. Stick to the Source

Facing a new and potentially challenging audience is not the time to experiment with new ideas or make stuff up. You can hurt people that way. Starting with yourself.

So I stuck to the source. I went to my room after the conversation with the chaplain and I opened my Bible.

Even when I don’t know what I’m talking about, God does.

7. Tell a Story

That night in my room I rediscovered one of my favorite Bible stories about one of my all-time heroes. Caleb.

Caleb’s story is smack in the middle of Numbers 13-14, the passage that inspired the title of The Grasshopper Myth, so I didn’t have to look far.

Stories are universal. That’s why Jesus depended on them. When all else fails, tell a story.

Caleb started out as the only one of the 12 spies who said “we can take the land.” Joshua wasn’t heard from – not on that first day, anyway. It was only after everyone cried through the night that we see Joshua tearing his clothes in sorrow with Caleb the next day. (Numbers 13:30 – 14:9)

I told Caleb’s story at the Prayer Breakfast, then asked some questions. What happened that night? Did Caleb talk to the other 11 spies? I would have. Did he try to convince them all, but only win Joshua over? I think that’s likely.

Caleb faced a difficult task with very little evidence of success. Good people told him it couldn’t be done. He had less than a 10 percent success rate, then a loooong time (40 years) watching everything collapse, before success finally came.

I encouraged them to be Calebs. Stand for what’s right. Keep at it, no matter how small the returns seem to be. Stay for long-term results. Be faithful.

Stories are universal. That’s why Jesus depended on them. When all else fails, tell a story.

8. Quit When You’re Done

I stopped speaking before the clock told me I had to. That may have been their favorite part of my talk.

And now I am done again. So I will quit.

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December 22, 2016 at 3:17 AM

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