Above: Paul Scanlon talks to Clare Chate about how communicators can improve their craft.
Ever given a wedding speech, preached a sermon, or spoken up in a staff meeting—and watched peoples’ eyes glaze over?
If so, you may have been committing one of the cardinal sins of communication. Never fear though; with conscious effort, you can hone your craft and become an engaging communicator.
That’s the firm belief of international communication trainer Paul Scanlon, the former senior pastor of Life Church in the UK.
Paul is in Australia this week delivering Communication Masterclasses designed for anyone whose role involves communicating – from preachers and teachers, to business owners, writers, small group leaders, politicians, actors and TV presenters.
In an interview with Hope 103.2, Paul shared a number of common, but hidden, mistakes many communicators make—and tips on how to fix them.
Surprisingly, his advice isn’t about areas of technique like eye-contact, voice projection, tone and body language. Rather, it’s about an overall approach to communication.
Mistake #1: Undervaluing Your Power As A Speaker
The worst mistake speakers can make, in Paul Scanlon’s view, is failing to realise how powerful and helpful they can be to their audience.
This can lead to speakers being half-hearted or lazy in their delivery, often speaking in “autopilot” and doubting the value of their message.
“To me, the cardinal mistake as communicators,” Paul said, “is that we undervalue our ability and our privilege and honour to be in peoples’ minds – for a period of time – in order to shape thinking, give them a new idea, transform their lives to a new level.”
He said most speakers and communicators can improve not just their content, but their self-belief.
“We need to realise that if we [speak] well, not only will we pass on information, perhaps we’ll also give someone the language for their life, or an idea that they’ve never dreamed of, because we said it so well.”
Mistake #2: Believing You’re “Just Another” Communicator
Great orators like Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela didn’t just communicate with words, but with their whole self: the sum of their personality, convictions, and life story.
Nobody else could have delivered the messages they did.
In the same way, Paul Scanlon believes every person has a unique “Vocal Fingerprint” or “signature sound” made up of our beliefs, experiences, character traits and strengths, that nobody else has.
“When you speak from that unique essence of who you are, no-one else in the world can say something like you can say it.”
It’s a mistake, in his view, to think you’ve got nothing different to share.
“[I want to] help people have a confidence in their right to be heard, a confidence that they have a unique voice,” he said. “They are not an echo or a copy. Their uniqueness is lost to us all if they feel afraid that what they say is just going to be a repeat or an echo.”
He tells all his students that they have a unique voice to bring to the table.
“You have to find this,” he said. “Because when you speak from that unique essence of who you are, energised with the ‘why’ and the passion you bring to it, no-one else in the world can say something like you can say it.”
Mistake #3: Speaking To Everybody—And Nobody
A skilled communicator will spend time thinking deeply about not just the message they’re going to deliver, but how it will resonate with the individuals who hear it.
Lesser communicators forget to do this, instead trying to bring a message that suits “everyone”. The result is vagueness.
To overcome this, Paul advises his students to “speak to a crowd of one”. In other words, craft your sermon, your blog post, or your wedding speech, to sound intimate – as though you’re delivering it to an individual.
Paul says he always takes time to do this before he speaks.
“I spend a lot of time thinking how this will sound to different life-stages, people in different circumstances, people in different problems and tragedies of life,” he said.
“You [need to] think about how this lands for the single parent, or the student, or the person that’s battling cancer, or the person that’s just had a bankruptcy, or the successful entrepreneur.”
It’s what leads readers or audience members to utter one of the greatest compliments a communicator can hear: “I felt like you were talking just to me!”
Mistake #4: Being Too Abstract
Another “cardinal mistake” of communicating is failing to use practical illustrations.
When you’re presenting a complex or abstract idea, drive it home with everyday explanations that your audience will “get”, says Paul.
This is “The Art Of Capture” – a term Paul coined – to describe the practice of taking mental photographs of everyday scenarios, and using them to develop an idea or communicate a concept.
“Comedians do this all the time,” he said. “They do observational comedy. That is capture. They spend hours analysing everyday things.
“Great communicators live with their head on ‘swivel’, and their antennae tuned into the everyday ordinary stuff all around them, finding things to “capture” that they can develop into a concept.”
“Sometimes it can be so silly a thing, but when you mention it, everybody can get on the same page instantly, because it comes from something very normal in life.”
By using tangible metaphors, you can bond your audience together—in laughter, agreement, or collective “aha” moments.
Mistake #5: Staying Inside Your Own Head
According to Paul, most communicators spend too much time “in their own heads”, thinking about what they are going to say.
What we need to do instead, is get “inside the heads” of the audience, thinking about their life experience.
“The best communicators in the world, the way they come across, tells you they’ve spent a lot of time in the minds and in the shoes of the people listening to them,” Paul said.
“As we are talking to people, peoples’ minds are talking to them at the same time. So there are two voices all the time.”
“People do not listen with their ears; people listen with how they think…with their minds. As we are talking to people, peoples’ minds are talking to them at the same time. So there are two voices all the time when communication’s taking place.”
He said a person’s internal voice is the most powerful.
“That’s why people can nod their heads and have a New Year’s resolution with their conscious mind, but their internal, pre-programmed “jukebox” of belief system in the subconscious mind, utterly governs the outcome,” he said.
The trick is to drown out your audience’s internal voices, for a moment, by thinking about what they may be saying—and then challenging them.
“When I’m speaking to people, I want to interrupt that self-talk,” Paul said. “I want to interject and dislodge, for a few moments, what they’re saying to themselves, so they come off Autopilot and get open to a new idea.”