Answer These Four Questions and You’ll Be a Communicator

by Andy Wood on September 11, 2013

in Five LV Laws, Life Currency, Principle of Increase, Words

SoapboxLast summer I was sitting in a meeting of professors and academics discussing a tricky issue at this Christian university.  The issue:  What do we do about the fact that the back half of the full auditorium crowd spent their entire time in chapel texting on their phones? Beyond discussing rules for courtesy and maturity, I remember blurting out something like, “What they’re telling us is that whoever they’re connecting to is more interesting and relevant than whatever is happening on the stage.”

I was reading a web site not long ago about a product or service or something that somebody wanted me to “invest” in. I kept wishing whoever wrote it would get to the point. What is this? What can it do for me? What do I need to do to get it and how much is it going to cost me? Instead, in true sales letter form, I kept reading stuff like, “But first, let me tell you about so-and-so’s experience.” After a while I found myself screaming on the inside, Stop trying to get me interested! If I wasn’t interested I wouldn’t still be reading! Just give me the message and get to the point!

Years ago I went to a seminar for professional therapists called “Crossing the Line.” It was an ethical seminar about counselors who got romantically or sexually involved with their clients – totally a no-no. Yet statistics say something like 33% of therapists do it.  They presented the facts to a huge room filled with people, and shook their heads and talked about how terrible it was and how to avoid it.  But if the stats were true, a third of that crowd were perpetrators – and nobody offered them anything as a solution other than more guilt and shame. I left angry and frustrated. Is that what four hours of my time was supposed to produce?

I don’t care who you are or how you choose to communicate, please tell me that on the other end of that is somebody you expect to be interested, gain understanding, take action or dare to dream. Whether it’s an email message, a speech, a sales pitch, or even a sermon to a captive audience, please tell me you’re not going to waste somebody else’s time and your credibility with communication that doesn’t communicate!

Before you hit the send button, seal the envelope or walk up to the podium, here are four questions you need to be prepared to answer, and then actually answer them:

1.  So What?

Why does this matter?  How is it relevant?  Why should I care?  Give me the reasons, but don’t just depend on dry logic. Give me the emotional reasons. The spiritual connection. The self-image angle, or the financial connection.  Tell me something about my kid, my health, my stress level or my job or lack thereof that actually makes me think you have something to say to me.

Of course, that’s a little tricky when you’re dealing with different people at the same time. But it isn’t that hard – we all have many needs, interests, and passions in common. Leverage them. Don’t try to force me to care about what you have to say until you show me that what you have to say is something I actually already do feel passionate about.

Also, do not, under any circumstances, assume I can make the connection. I can’t. Or if I can, I’m often too lazy to do it.  I’m not stupid – you don’t have to talk down to me. But by connecting the dots between your message and my life, you are showing me you understand me. And now you have my attention.

2. What?

What is the thrust of the message?  Give me the facts. I know this may not be true for everybody, but at some point, and reasonably soon, I want the list. Give me the content – the three points and the poem. Give me the clear, honest facts. Tell me who, what, when, where, why, and how. Don’t make me think you don’t want me to figure it out. Don’t make me keep wondering what your point is. Don’t make me wonder if you know what your point is.

Tell. Me. The. Facts.

3. What Now?

What do I do about what I have heard?  Give me the practical steps. Where do we go from here? What are my options? What are my absolute imperatives? What comes first? What’s the next right thing to do?  If you’re preaching on sin, what’s the sinner supposed to do? If you’re applying for a job, what do you want the prospective employer to do next?

For years I watched Billy Graham preach to thousands of people. His style was often rambling and his subjects varied greatly. But when it came time to “draw the net,” he became crystal-clear: “I’m going to ask you to get up out of your seat and make your way to the front of this auditorium. And in doing so you are saying ‘yes’ to Jesus Christ.”

Whatever you think of the method, there was no mistaking the “What now?” question.  What are you doing in your message to be explicit about what to do next?

4. What if?

There are some people you will never reach until you ignite their imagination.  How can this blow my mind?  What does this do to stoke my imagination?  Give me the implications, or a new dream.  Tell me the horrific dangers or the breathtaking possibilities. I can fill in the details or even send my own imagination soaring if you can just help get it off the ground.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech did that very thing.  “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I’m not suggesting that every piece of communication needs to sound as though you’re on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But I am saying it needs to reach the heart, the head, the feet, and the imagination if you truly want to be heard.

So next time you’re about to tell ‘em like it is, arm yourself with these four questions:  So what? What? Now what? What if?

You’ll even have the texters in the back sitting up and taking notice.

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Martha Orlando September 11, 2013 at 12:33 pm

With so much out there competing for our time and attention, we must hear/deliver a clear, usable, understandable message. Right on, Andy!
Martha Orlando´s last blog post ..Who Do You Say I Am?

Justin August 28, 2014 at 12:03 am

Excellent points! I witnessed this in action today actually. I was with several of our top management team for my 3 year anniversary luncheon. Crowded in the back of a small jeep, the president was asking questions regarding a situation that arose. Thumbing away at his phone, our manager ignored (or so it seemed) everything she had to say. I think he would have been more receptive of the inquiries and requests had they been given a “what if?’ and a “so what?” to apply the issue. I will utilize these next time I am in the classroom battling for attention. Thanks!

Valerie D Peters September 7, 2017 at 11:41 am

These are very useful points and I could often place myself in the shoes you spoke of! I first, agree with your response to the quandary over the discourtesy of the students in the auditorium. Although I understand the burden of the speaker to hold the interest of the audience, there stands still a thing called respect and courtesy. This generation is such that more and more seems to be needed to hold attention; this is a degrading problem. The Facts! Yes, get them back on track and grab the attention, great point. Lastly, thank-you, people are looking for the ‘how to’ and certainly do not want to simply be told ‘what’ is being done. How do we avoid this…how do we correct this…etc.

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