I have spent many years listening to preachers. Some have inspired, some have frustrated and the very best have challenged but they all have one thing in common, a desire to communicate their thoughts to those listening. As a youth worker I too have the desire to communicate to those I serve and so, in an effort to develop my skills, I took the opportunity to spend two years on a training program, writing and giving talks with subsequent peer and expert feedback. Now in my role as a medical educator I find myself once again trying to communicate with an audience and find that many of the lessons learnt about preaching apply to my current situation as a teacher. Here are five of them…
1) Be Humble
It is important when one is trying to pass on knowledge to concentrate on the people you are talking to but this can lead to using phrases like ‘You need to…’ or ‘You should try to…’ being used. Such phrases separate the speaker from their audience and give an impression of being above or beyond those we are trying to reach. Instead, including ourselves in these statements, ‘We need to…’ and ‘We should try to…’ shows our community struggle with whatever the issue at hand is and that we are a part of the change that is required. Another powerful option is to use ‘I’ and take the audience on your own journey of, ‘I used to… then I… now I…’ which lays bare your own need to change. Using ‘I’ in this way shows a humility that can help listeners connect with you as one of them, seeing their struggles in yours, instead of seeing you as some paragon of perfection telling them what to do.
2) Point to your Text
Without our text we are just giving our opinion and why should anyone be listening to that? If we have something important to say, something to teach find the evidence and make sure we refer to it. Now this might be a scientific paper, established physiology or a book by a renowned expert but whatever it is make sure our audience know that is where our teaching is rooted. After that we are free to give our opinion on the information, that’s part of the joy of teaching, but our learners need to have the option of going to that source themselves and forming their own view… the best teachers actively encourage this.
3) Application is King
Passing on knowledge is one thing, giving people a way to apply it is quite another. When we teach we need to make sure we go beyond knowledge transmission (if that is even possible) and look to inspire a change of behaviour based on that knowledge. Real life application is an essential part of moving knowledge from head to heart. How do we do that? Well, presumably we are practicing what we preach so explain how we are, or are trying to, apply this knowledge in our own life. Explain the difficulties we have had, the mistakes we have made and the victories we have won: make it honest, make it messy and most of all make it humble because ’You need to…’ never works as well as ‘I have to…’
4) Illustrate to Illuminate
It is not uncommon to find that we are teaching on subjects that can be complicated, erudite or even down right confusing! We may have something really important to say but if nobody understands what it is we are talking about, we might as well not bother. We must know our audience, understand their knowledge base and when they might struggle with what we are saying… then get illustrating. I’ve written on this before in a previous blog post but it is also important to remember not just to illustrate the potentially difficult facts or concepts in our teaching. Using a story or an analogy to illustrate the problem faced and the desired outcome can tap in to emotions that are not usually associated with learning, helping to plant what you are teaching deep in to the listeners, ready for acting upon.
5) Challenge them with a Purpose
So, you’ve been humble, joined in the learning journey with your audience, taken some important information and illustrated what this actually means for you all in real life… is that enough? I would say not. At this point you have a moment of opportunity: your audience have been entertained, informed and convinced: they are ready to do something different… are you ready to tell them what that is? You need to understand what it is you want them to do now, what it is that you now do with the information you have just shared… and challenge them to change. Too many good talks are wasted because there is no ultimate purpose to them and thus they have no impact on the world. Make sure you understand the purpose of your talk (it’s really where you should start planning from) and make sure that is where you leave your learners. The last thing they should hear from you is a challenge to actually do something: to think, act or be different in the light of your talk. Don’t waste all your effort by leaving your audience purposeless.
So, preacher or teacher, teacher or preacher? When it comes to communication skills, I’m not sure there is much difference, so why don’t you try a bit of preaching next time you have to teach, you never know, you might enjoy it!