Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Lessons From a Combatant in the Culture Wars: John Paul and The Power to Persuade

The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it wins over the mind with both gentleness and power. –John Paul II *

As a corporate trainer who specializes in communication and persuasion, I am constantly studying legendary communicators. I want to know how it is they are able to communicate so effectively and what their process is for persuading their audiences, especially hostile audiences. Given the worldwide impact John Paul had on people and cultures around the world, he was and is someone whom I have studied in great depth. While there are many things we can learn from him here, there are only two lessons I want to highlight: the necessity of connecting with our audience and the power of a compelling vision.

As a young man, John Paul immersed himself in theater. Working on a stage “honed his sense of timing, made him more articulate, and taught him the necessity of connecting with an audience.” * Over the decades of his speaking in stadiums, churches, conferences, and in front of television cameras, one of the most common observations was regarding his uncanny ability to make every person in the audience sense that he was speaking directly to them, even when his audience was over one million people.

Two minors from Katowice were attending one of the Pope’s Masses at Czetochowa, surrounded by a million fellow Poles. One began to make a remark during John Paul’s homily when his friend quickly interrupted, “Damn it, don’t talk when the Pope’s talking to me.” *

My experience of many who aspire to being cultural influence agents is that they talk at people. Most everything they say or write comes across as a “canned presentation,” a sermon, as propaganda, that will be regurgitated over and over again, regardless of the audience, the moment, the platform, or the medium. The effect of such presentations on the audience, either consciously or unconsciously, is, “S/he doesn’t have a clue as to who I am, what makes me tick, or why I believe what I do.” Communicators, who genuinely intend for their message to be heard, will take this “feedback” and seek to discover how to connect with people. Remember: without rapport, there is no communication.

How do we do this?

Henri de Lubac, one of John Paul’s closest friends and fellow priests, wrote, “If you do not live, think, and suffer with the men of your time, as one of them, in vain will you pretend, when the moment comes to speak to them, to adapt your language to their ear.” The operative word here is, “with.” How many face-to-face and heart-to-heart conversations have we had with those whom we seek to communicate our vision and values: conversations that entail far more listening than speaking? For many influence agents, the number is paltry, which, of course, leaves them incapable of communicating any degree of understanding the minds and hearts of those to whom they are seeking to persuade.

When it comes to maintaining a connection with our audience, word choices matter. Our words and how they are spoken can communicate understanding, empathy, and respect, or they can leave our audiences dumfounded and confused as to what we are seeking to convey and to whom we were actually speaking. In other words, we leave them feeling invisible. The remedy for this is not a thesaurus: it is relationships. 

John Paul wrote of presenting “the sacred in such a manner as seems entirely fitting to the men of today.” * If our communications about what we hold as sacred are, for example, framed for and presented to audiences of the 1700s or 1950s, no matter how true our words, no matter how “sacred” our visions and values, they will remain muted, because we are speaking to an audience (culture) that is no longer in existence.  

Yes, no matter how cogent and clear our communication, there will always be those whom disagree. However, for people to walk away thinking and feeling we are clueless as to their concerns, fears, needs, beliefs, and questions, should be utterly unacceptable. Connecting with our audiences, attaining and maintaining rapport with people, is on the communicator, not the listeners. The first step to accomplishing this, as Lubac pointed out, is living, thinking, and suffering with the men and women of our time, as one of them.

Next week: The Power of a Compelling Vision.

* Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, by George Weigel, Cliff Street Books, 1999

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment