“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power”
The greatest communicator ever lived 2,000 years ago. He held no academic degrees, wrote no books, held no formal classes, never used a PowerPoint slide or an iPad, and taught and lived in an obscure corner of the world. As he taught, he felt equally at home with a simple villager as he did with a Roman governor.
Yet his message turned history upside down and has transformed billions of lives. He has been called “our only teacher,” “the greatest of the greatest oral teachers,” the “master teacher,” and the “paragon of pedagogy.”
His name? Jesus of Nazareth. His medium to deliver his message? Oral communication.
Jesus masterfully intersected several communication principles that helped make his teaching potent, for the gospel writers recorded it for us. They wrote over 50 times that he was called teacher. His listeners described his teaching as having authority. They noted over 10 times that people were “amazed” at his teaching, and they record over 25 extended discourses. They “hung on his words (Luke 19:48),” “listened with delight (Mark 12:37),” and crowded around him to hear him teach (Luke 5:1). He enthralled the crowds so well that sometimes they even forgot to eat (Mark 6:22–44). Often crowds would gather not just to receive his miracles, but to hear him teach.
What about Jesus’ communication and teaching elicited such comments and motivated so many to believe his message and follow him? What made him such a profound communicator? Did he use techniques that modern day teachers, preachers and businesspeople can apply in their lessons, sermons and training sessions?
I’m convinced he did.
That’s what this article is all about—it introduces concepts about how you can successfully engage your audience with eight core communication principles modeled, practiced and embodied by Jesus, all supported by the latest findings from the neuroscience of communication. Research informs us that when communicators learn how the brain works and how to apply brain insight to their messages, they become better communicators.
Eight core communication principles from Jesus’ teaching and supported by neuroscience
1. Clarity: Jesus began with the end in mind because he knew where he wanted to take his listeners.
2. Attention: Jesus masterfully piqued people’s interest to focus their attention on his message.
3. Affinity: Jesus knew how to create a connection to his audience that prompted many to hear and heed what he said.
4. Capacity: Jesus helped his listeners’ minds stay engaged as he spoke.
5. Durability: Jesus helped his listeners remember what he said so they could later recall it and act upon it.
6. Emotion: Jesus engaged people’s hearts, which cemented their learning.
7. Mindset: Jesus cultivated his listeners’ confidence in himself and in his message.
8. Transfer: Jesus stimulated personal application that led to life transformation.
So, two sources of truth, the Bible and brain science provide the backbone for this article and book that I wrote that unpacks these principles. I intersect what we learn from Jesus’ teaching recorded in the gospels (how he spoke, what he spoke, and how others responded to his teaching) with insight on the latest neuroscience of learning. Both inform us about how to communicate well.
Yet, an important qualifier is this: “Our culture and historical distance from first-century Palestine makes a simple transfer of Jesus’ approach to communicating (my addition) to our own varied situations” challenging. So, Jesus modeled many communication techniques, the general sense of which we can apply to our modern-day settings.
Research indicates that most people quickly forget our talks, speeches and sermons. Schoolteachers often struggle to make their teaching stick. Businesspeople face an ongoing challenge to get their message out, train their employees and cast vision for their companies. Speechmakers spend hours prepping their talks and often don’t know what eventually will stick in their audience’s minds. Sunday-school teachers and preachers may also wonder how well their lessons and sermons connect to their students.
Unfortunately, we live in a world that increasingly forgets. As a result, those who passively listen to us forget most of what we say. In the late 1800s and early 1900s a German psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus researched memory. He created over 2,000 short nonsense words and experimented on himself by memorizing lists of them and then recording how long it took him to forget them. Out of his research rose what psychologists call the forgetting curve. Although only one person participated in his research, himself, his findings have generally stood to this day. Simply put, if we passively engage in learning, we quickly forget what we learn. Most people will forget 70% of a talk, speech or sermon within 24 hours and up to 90% within a week.
Perhaps you’ve felt a similar frustration as I have, wondering just how well your lesson, sermon, talk or training session connected. Our frustrations are not unfounded. Communicators face many challenges in our world today: fragmented attention, multitasking mania and increased forgetting, among others.
James reminds about the peril of forgetting when he writes, “But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away and forget what you look like” (James 1:22–24).
These frustrations motivated me to research and write about practical tools gleaned from the latest neuroscience of learning and illustrated in the life of the Master Teacher himself, Jesus. So, whether you are a teacher who teaches, a leader who leads, a preacher who preaches, a speaker who speaks or simply a learner who learns, if you apply these eight principles you will communicate and learn better.
Ultimately, however, Christian communicators must remember that God’s kingdom is not about a perfectly crafted sermon, lesson, talk or training lesson based on the neuroscience and psychology of learning. It involves much more. God ultimately effects lasting learning and transformation. As the apostle Paul wrote, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Cor. 4:20).
Adapted from If Jesus Gave a TED Talk: Eight Neuroscience Principles the Master Teacher Used to Persuade His Audience (Freiling Publishing).