Several years ago I was invited to address a group of Christian leaders in Canada, about church writing groups and the need for Christians to write in a compelling manner in whatever marketplace writers may find themselves. My aim was to teach about worldview and about including God’s word in reaching a secular audience. (Before you read further, in my defense I will say that I had previously given this same talk to several different Christian audiences.)
I began to make a point about how your harsh words and insensitive writing will polarize an audience before even reaching your main point. Using a letter to the editor I had found, I began reading it aloud so they could hear a harsh, insensitive writer spouting venom about homosexuals. My second step was to dig into the letter together with my audience so that we could find a more appropriate way to make a point.
I’ll admit to the irony of what happened next.
Before I could finish reading the offensive letter out loud, a quarter of my audience had stood, turned their backs, and exited the room.
What could I have done differently? I warned them, up front, that this would be something we could–we should–all learn to do better. Perhaps I should have brought up my main points earlier on, so they could see that I myself intended no insult. Before planning my talk, I should have asked some questions of the conference organizers, in the hope of learning more about the attendees.
It has always been my policy to remember first what Paul instructed to his readers–and what I was going to teach my audience–to do: “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (NASB Colossians 4:5-6). In this case, my message failed to reach many people in my audience because I didn’t understand how to “respond to each person.”
Consider, though, that you can’t always anticipate how each audience member will react. Better to hold on to the truth than to water down your message.
Think about who your audience is: who reads your discourse or sits in your audience? Think about them and write so that they can understand.
This means you need to evaluate–or maybe anticipate–your audience before you write. Now, if you are a Rhetoric student, your audience is not so vast:
- Your teacher
- Your parents, who will proofread
- Your classmates
Or maybe you have a larger audience:
- Readers of your blog or other social media
- Readers of your letter to an editor
- Your youth group
- Classmates, teachers, administrators, and parents at your school–perhaps in a graduation assembly or thesis defense
Perhaps you have a passionate response to something in the news, or you want to join a demonstration and make your voice heard. Who will be that audience?
Most importantly, you want to craft a speech or discourse in the best light so that your audience will be moved to take action. And alongside of that, you must keep in mind WHO your audience is, and be sure to write so that they understand what you’ve said.
In the situation above, what could I have done differently? Before I read aloud that offensive letter to the editor, I DID tell them what they were going to hear and that I wanted to work with them on less strident language. What can I conclude from their hasty departure? Either they didn’t hear my introduction, or they just couldn’t stomach what I was reading out loud. It’s hard to know now. Something about the subject caused them to shut down and walk off.
This is bound to happen sometimes. If we’re speaking the truth in love, at times it won’t matter that you have the best intentions. Truth offends. Often, though, we need to:
- Observe who we are trying to reach,
- Review what we’re going to say, and
- Commit our words and our presentation to the Lord, asking him for wisdom.
In his instructions to the faithful in Colossae, Paul writes a beautiful passage on how to speak with others both inside and outside of the church:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (ESV Colossians 3:12-17, emphasis added)
Be that salt and light to your audience, whoever they are. Speak the truth in love. Have compassion for the lost. Put on love.