(The second and final post for "Communication Week.")
I think it's beyond debate that the greatest communicator of all time was Jesus. His words (and their power) have arguably made more impact on more people than any other speaker in history. And it all happened before the internet. Amazing.
I'd like to briefly examine Jesus' technique-style-manner-and-method of presenting information to his audience. In this regard, Jesus was a genius (regardless of what you think about his message or person). Let's begin by first looking at His influence upon communicators.
Whether you're new to Jesus' words or they're old hat, you've certainly heard some of the things he said by merely living in US culture. Why? Because other famous orators have plagiarized him, without attribution. Honestly, I think he's ok with that. For example, when Abraham Lincoln ran for the Illinois senate (1858), his speech began:
"A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other."
In fact, Jesus actually said these words first: "If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand" (Mark 3:25). I'm sure that Lincoln knew his audience would recognize his words as originating with Jesus.
Another example occurred in President Reagan's farewell address to the American people, 1989:
The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the shining "city upon a hill." The phrase comes from John Winthrop, ... an early Pilgrim ... [who] journeyed here on what today we'd call a little wooden boat, and, like the other pilgrims, was looking for a home that would be free.
Actually, it wasn't John Winthrop (1630) who said this first, but Jesus in Matthew 5:14 – "A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house." While Lincoln's audience recognized he was quoting Jesus, Reagan's audience (131 years later) would not so easily recognize Jesus' quotation ... so Reagan referenced a founding pilgrim to America, who himself quoted Jesus' words. Regardless, I think it's safe to say that no one has been quoted more often than Jesus.
Jesus introduced many phrases that are now common expressions in our everyday language. How many of these expressions do you recognize?
- Turn the other cheek. (Matthew 5:38-39)
- A wolf in sheep's clothing. (Matthew 7:15)
- The blind leading the blind. (Matthew 15:14)
- The truth will set you free. (John 8:31-32)
- Practice what you preach. (Matthew 23:2-3)
- Go the extra mile. (Matthew 5:41)
- He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone. (John 8:7)
- Do to others what you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:31)
Yep, Jesus said all of those things first. We still use these expressions, 2000 years later. Remarkable.
Not only could Jesus turn a phrase, he was brilliant "painting pictures" of common, everyday items. If you make a list of the metaphors and vivid images Jesus employed in his teaching, you'll be struck by their simplicity and beauty – and how unforgettable they are. For example:
- a lost sheep and a good shepherd
- a farmer casting seed on four types of soil
- salt, mustard seeds, bread and wine
- a vine and branches; a fig tree
- a camel going through a needle's eye
- birds that don't sow, reap, or gather into barns
- lilies that don't labor yet are clothed in splendor
- a plank of wood in your eye
- a very narrow gate
- a house built on sand and a house built on a rock
- foxes with holes and birds with nests
- little children
- living water
- a pearl of great price and a treasure buried in a field
- a yoke that's easy ...
Today, if someone examined your speaking, would they be able to itemize simple, everyday metaphors in the images you use? Here are two examples off the tip of my tongue:
- "He flip-flopped effortlessly, like a Master Chef wielding his spatula of indecision."
- "Ignoring proper decorum, he hefted the meat cleaver of truth, dismantling their precious traditions."
Ok, not exactly Shakespeare (or Scripture), but a spatula and a meat cleaver are pretty vivid images.
Jesus told stories. Who has not heard of the Prodigal Son? Or the Good Samaritan? Both stories have become permanent expressions in our national lexicon. Jesus told other stories, too: an owner of a vineyard with rebellious workers, a wedding with guests who refused to come, a woman who'd lost a precious coin, and a father who lost a wayward son – then found him.
Jesus knew vital truth is best remembered when sewn into the fabric of a story. A unique subset of Jesus' stories was his truth-revealing parables. The majority of them were attempts to make concrete the abstract truths of the unseen Kingdom of God. Why did he choose parables as a vehicle to teach the crowds? Because parables have a remarkable dual capacity: to reveal truth to people with open hearts but conceal truth from people with closed hearts.
Put It All Together
The best explanation I've read regarding Jesus' manner of teaching was offered by Dallas Willard in his book, The Divine Conspiracy (p. 112-114). Willard waxes wise as he unpacks the secret to Jesus' teaching methodology. I summarize Willard's words this way: Jesus uses every teaching-moment to mess with your life in an unforgettable way, so you'll never need to refer back to handwritten notes. In other words, his words will ring in your ears forever.
Here's how Willard describes it in one of my favorite passages:
The aim of the popular teacher in Jesus' time was not to impart information, but to make a significant change in the lives of the hearers. Of course, that may require an information transfer, but it is a peculiarly modern notion that the aim of teaching is to bring people to know things that may have no effect at all on their lives.
... If we today were invited to hear the Sermon on the Mount ... we would show up with notebooks, pens, and tape recorders. We would be astonished to find the disciples 'just listening' to Jesus and would look around to see if someone was taping it ... Working our way through the crowd to ... Peter, we might ask where the conference notebooks and other materials were ... and be furthered astonished when he only says, "Just listen!"
The teacher in Jesus' time ... taught in such a way that he would impact the life-flow of the hearer, leaving a lasting impression without benefit of notes, recorders, or even memorization. Whatever did not make a difference in that way just made no difference. Period. And, of course, this is true to the laws of the mind and self."
We automatically remember what makes a real difference in our life. The secret of a great teacher is to speak words, to foster experiences, that impact the active flow of the hearer's life. That is what Jesus did ..."
So, dear communicator, can you format your content in such a way that your audience will never be able to forget your message, without the aid of notes? Will you seek to move the life-flow of the listener so powerfully that they will never forget when and where they heard your message? I know, that's a tall order. Regardless, it's the only goal worth shooting for. Anything less won't even change a diaper, let alone change the world.
Finally, for all the challenges of communicating in a memorable way, we can find some solace knowing that Jesus is unique. We're not Him. Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by his genius. The apostle John referred to him as "the Word of God" (John 1:1, 14). With that kind of name, who else would we expect to be the most eloquent, effective, and transcendent communicator in the history of mankind?