The heart of communication

Rob Parsons has been a public speaker for half a century, but it's not something that's always come naturally to him.  Rather, it's a skill he's had to learn and develop over time.  

With 50 years under his belt, the Care for the Family founder is sharing his tips so that those engaged in public speaking - be it pastors or those in the pews - can connect with their audiences and make a lasting impact with their message.

He speaks to Christian Today about his new book, The Heart of Communication, and the methods he's gleaned from years of practice that can help any public speaker.

CT: You've been doing public speaking for half a century. Would you say you've always been a good communicator or was it something you had to learn?

Rob: It was something I learnt. I was the kind of person who never put my hand up in class; I didn't come from an academic home; I wasn't very good at school. If you could have picked any kid in the class to do what I'm doing, I would have been the last one you picked!

But it started when I was about 16 or 17, just speaking to kids. I was going to a little house group for teenagers and the man running it told me, "I think God has given you a gift of public speaking."

He taught me how to teach the parable of the prodigal son to children, with the irony being that he himself was one of the worst public speakers I'd ever heard in my life! But it just goes to show that coaches can often take their charges further than they can ever take themselves!

There have been a couple of significant moments that forever changed the way I spoke and taught me lessons, but that's where it started, in that house group for teenagers.

CT: Have you ever got up on a stage and thought, oh dear, this isn't working?

Rob: Yes, absolutely!

CT: How did you get through those moments? What was going through your head?

Rob: I've often got home from events and thought, that was a disaster! And then I've sometimes driven home and thought, that was incredible! And what I've discovered over the years is that my great talks weren't as great as I thought they were, and my disasters weren't as bad as I thought they were.

Sometimes you get up there and it does feel like really hard work, but if you have reasonable confidence in your material, you have to press on.

And so many things can affect the audience's reaction beyond you and your material. For example, imagine you're speaking in a 1,500-seater auditorium and only 250 people turn up. The audience reaction might not feel so great because you've got a few people sitting in this cavern and there's not that sense of closeness or laughter. But if you were to have those same 250 people crammed into a small hall or conference room, it might be hot and stuffy, but it's much more likely you'll have an incredible and dynamic reaction from them.

In both situations, though, you've got to have the guts to keep going and have confidence in your material, because what I've discovered is that at the end of my talk, when people have come up to speak to me, they have said 'thank you'.  Whether I felt it was going well or not, I got exactly the same reaction. Regardless of how I was feeling, for those individuals, it was often a really, really good experience. 

 CT: What do you think is the single most important skill for someone who has to do public speaking?

Rob: Aristotle said public speaking was the art of persuasion and that there were essentially three important elements to it: ethos - or your credibility; then pathos - your empathy and understanding; and logos - your reasoned argument.

If you are a university lecturer, you need logos because you need to get the material across. But if you are in ministry, I think the greatest gift is empathy. You want to understand the audience and make them feel that you are with them.

For that to happen, one of the things you're going to have to do as a public speaker is to imagine that your talk is a dialogue. Even if you're speaking to 5,000 people at the Royal Albert Hall, it's still a dialogue. That means imagining the questions your audience is asking. For example, you might stand up and say: I believe in a God who answers prayer. That's fine, except there's probably someone in the audience saying: God didn't answer my prayer; my child died; my husband lost his job; my best friend let me down. You don't need to go into every theological nuance but you have to say something like: I know some of you will be going through disappointments in prayer, so let me tell you what I mean when I say I believe in a God who answers prayer.

Your audience needs to feel that you understand them and so in the book, I talk a lot about how to build that relationship - almost an intimate relationship - with your audience. I'm sometimes speaking to very big audiences, but I often look around and wonder, what's that person thinking about or that person over there, I think I've lost that person; why've I lost him? I look around like that because I want that relationship with the audience.

CT: I think we've all been in a situation where we've gone to hear a speaker and we know that the subject matter is really interesting and yet their talk is sending us to sleep. Besides the lack of connection you've touched upon, what other common mistakes do you think people make in their public speaking?

Rob: To quote Aristotle again, he basically said: if they're not really listening, there's no point in you speaking.
I was once on a teaching team with some very eminent people and I was often speaking with them in mind, until it donned on me one day that my talks were going over people's heads. Professor Lewis Smedes once said that pastors need to remember that they're speaking to ordinary people - perhaps a woman with cancer or a couple whose son has broken their heart.

The mistake we make is that we prepare what we think is a good talk. It's got all the elements: a great start, a great middle and a great end; it's theologically sound. But the problem is that it doesn't touch people's hearts. And what I've found is that even if you're giving quite a theological or academic presentation, you probably still need to touch people's hearts in some way.

CT: You said earlier that there were some significant moments that forever changed the way you speak. Do you remember the most significant?

Rob: Thirty years ago, I was a speaker at a large Christian conference and another speaker was giving a seminar in the afternoon called "Improve Your Public Speaking". I told my friend I was going to go and he said to me: "You're going to address 4,000 people in the main celebration tonight, why are you going?" But I said, trust me it will be worth it. And it was.

The speaker said a couple of things that were impactful and one of them was this: if you lose people, it's for one of two reasons. It's either because you're boring or because you're interesting. Well, anyone can understand how you can lose someone's attention if you're boring. But how can you lose someone's attention if you're interesting?!

He said this: you'll say something fascinating to your audience and their mind will go off on it, but if you want to keep them over the long haul, you've got to bring them back every so often.  Change your pace, tell a story, take your jacket off, anything, but if you want to keep them over the long haul, you've got to bring them back.

In other words, it's not enough to have a great talk. You can still bore people to death with a great talk and not touch people. What we want as public speakers is to really get through to people.

In the book, I explain two ways that most people can improve their public speaking by about 50 per cent in six months. The first is that sometimes we should speak shorter - not always, but sometimes. I find it staggering that in many churches, 30 minutes is about the standard. Why would you do that? If you need 40 minutes, take 40 minutes, but why not try 15 minutes or 20 minutes?

And the second thing people can do is tell stories. It's why it was said of the Greatest Communicator who ever lived that without a parable He didn't speak to them. Stories touch the heart as well as the head.

CT: We're all familiar with the TV or movie characateur of a vicar sending the congregation to sleep with his boring sermon. What tips would you give for pastors in particular who preach sermons every week?

Rob: A very experienced speaker who speaks at major Christian conferences had just been to my seminar on the heart of communication and he said to me, you know what Rob, it struck me as I listened to you, I've been to Bible college and I was taught about preaching and I was taught about preparation, but nobody talked to me about connection.

It was John Maxwell who said that everybody communicates but not everybody connects. So it's not enough just to preach; you want to connect. And there are some things we can do that can make a massive difference.

A lot of preachers preach over an audience. Literally, their eyes go over the top of their audience, but you never connect like that. You've got to look in people's eyes. And I talk about that in the book. How do you get that sense of eye contact? How appropriate is it to be vulnerable?

I was speaking the other day and I can't say I'm a great prayer person, but every morning I'm on my knees in my study and I do that because the smartest Man who ever lived prayed. But I went through a time in my life when I stopped praying. I was still writing books and speaking, but I wasn't really praying and I reached a point where I wanted desperately to begin again. So I read from Jesus' words where he said: go into a quiet room and close the door - the modern equivalent is 'turn your mobile phone off' - and don't worry about lots of words, just begin again simply like this: Our Father who art in Heaven....And I began doing that and it grew from there.

Now, if I share that story from the pulpit, there will be some people saying, well, if he can't pray longer than the Lord's Prayer, he doesn't have the right to preach to us. But you know something else that audience will be saying? That's me; I could try that again; I could do that.

There's an appropriateness of vulnerability where you don't necessarily wear your heart on your sleeve with everybody - and that aspect is harder for local church leaders - but you can still tell some stories.

The other thing I would say is: surprise people. Most people come in and sit down for their 25 minute sermon, so why not surprise them?! The most effective sermon I heard in my life was when I was about 25-years-old. The service at this particular church would start at 6:30pm and the preacher, who was one of the greatest communicators I'd ever heard, would start speaking at about 7:10pm and the whole thing would finish about quarter to eight. But on one particular occasion, he was interviewing three young nurses who were about to leave their secure jobs and go to a war-torn part of Africa. The interview ran on so he didn't get on his feet to deliver the sermon until about 7:30pm. We all thought we'd be there at midnight!

But then he said: "Tonight we continue in our studies in the Ten Commandments and we come to the commandment, 'Thou shallt not covet.' In the light of what we've heard from these three young women, how dare we covet? Our final hymn is..." And with that, he was gone, he'd finished.

Now, that sermon took 30 seconds. I've heard hundreds of sermons in my lifetime and I can't remember any of them probably! But I remember that one.

CT: Thinking about the change that we've seen with coronavirus, and pastors and speakers having to preach over the internet, do the skills to communicate well have to be adapted or do the same principles apply in order to build a rapport with people who are not in the same room as you?

Rob: It's a great question and of course, what many pastors are finding is that far more people are listening to them online than ever attended their churches! They might feel like they've got to be courageous to go back to the old ways!

The old principles are still true, but it's different. For example, you've got to look in people's eyes and the problem with speaking to camera is that if you're not very careful, you'll end up looking at your own image on the screen! But you mustn't do that; you must look right in the camera eye. However, having said that, the problem then becomes that it's almost too intense because you're looking into somebody's face, so you need to turn a little to the left or to the right.

And then you've got to work on things like getting the light right. You can do incredible things with a standard smartphone these days but you've still got to get it right.

And probably you have to speak for shorter than you normally would. You can't do your normal 30 minute interview because people aren't used to listening online for that length of time.

But again, you're trying to build connection. In some ways, it's easier because looking into a single camera, you can literally look into everybody's eyes; it's the equivalent of being in a 10,000-seater auditorium and looking every single person in the eye. You can look into the camera and say: "Tomorrow doesn't have to be like yesterday." And to your audience, it will be as if you're speaking only to them.