Speak To or Speak Above?

Why would a public speaker choose a subject that no one can relate to, think on later, or change their position after hearing the speech?  Why should people leave the hall scratching their bewildered heads instead of rubbing their chins in pensive thought?  Why would someone with a command of language choose to alienate, to dig a chasm between their pulpit or lectern and their audience?

The obvious reason a speaker uses a subject obscured or words unknown is one of distance.  Simply put, some folks like to create distance between themselves and their hearers so their intelligence will appear to be so great the lowly and simple dare not approach.  When the speaker speaks himself to a marked distance from the listeners, oftentimes the speaker assumes superiority.

Jesus didn’t do this.  He spoke TO the crowd He was addressing, not above them.  If they were fishermen, everyone who cast a net knew what the Master Fisherman meant when He said, “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men.”  If they were farmers, then “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…” is how the lesson began.  Yet when Jesus was only twelve He could speak mysteries so deep the scholars and rabbis of the synagogue were baffled.  Knowledge and verbiage applied appropriately to the audience is imperative if the desired result is communication.

Know your audience.  Speak to them, not above or below them.  Wouldn’t it be foolish to approach a group of adults and say, “I tawt I saw a puddy tat…” when trying to open a conversation?  But that segue works well with three-year-old children.  I seriously doubt we would be repeating Abraham Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address if he had spoken in a child’s lisping style.

Why use big words if simple ones will work?  Sometimes words less used express with greater clarity and depth than overworked, over-used verbiage.  For instance, the word “incredible” actually means “not credible, not believable,” but we have bent its meaning to fit a different definition, usually “wow!”  In truth if a speaker’s words are incredible, they are not believable.  There are times when a heavier word should be used if the subject matter is greater.  The person who speaks in abstract sentences sometimes chooses those words simply to avoid common terminology.  I suggest there is a place in between exhausted words and words the hearers don’t understand.

The ancient script says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”  I want my words to be fitly spoken, i.e., I want the spoken word to fit.  When the Challenger disaster happened in 1986 and seven astronauts were hurtled into eternity, President Ronald Reagan used “fitly spoken” words when he paraphrased the first line of John Magee’s poem and said, “They have slipped the surly bonds of earth and kissed the face of God.”  Now THAT is how to say it!  And the nation, not just a few people, understood exactly what the President was saying.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

~ John Magee

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Comments (3)

  1. The digital revolution seems to be moving many people toward non-print communication — or in the case of texters, forms of print that few readers of past generations would recognize. Thanks for words that we recognize and means something . . . this one twas a joy to read!

  2. 'I suggest there is a place in between exhausted words and words the hearers don’t understand.' That's a good thought on clear communication. Nice article Pastor Brett.