What gets in the way of your attempt to communicate with others? I ran across this quote from John Stott on a blog the other day:
“We human beings find it very difficult to handle abstract concepts; we need to convert them either into symbols (as in mathematics) or into pictures. For the power of imagination is one of God’s best and most distinctive gifts to mankind . . . Illustrations transform the abstract into the concrete, the ancient into the modern, the unfamiliar into the familiar, the general into the particular, the vague into the precise, the unreal into the real, and the invisible into the visible” (John Stott, Between Two Worlds, pp. 238-239)
Think of the conversations you will have today, the Bible study you are leading tonight, and the talk you will give next week. In your attempts to instill, instruct and proclaim, is there anything in what you will say that will seem to your listeners to be abstract, ancient, unfamiliar, general, vague, unreal, or invisible? If what we are trying to communicate doesn’t seem to be one of these things at first to our hearers, we probably wouldn’t need to teach it. So how do we overcome this obstacle?
In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath identify something called the “Curse of Knowledge.” The curse occurs when we see or understand some truth (like the power of community), and forget what it was like to not know it. When we attempt to teach others that truth, we teach poorly because we have forgotten what it took for us to learn that same truth.
Jesus is our model of great communication. Think of the gap between the knowledge and wisdom of the Son of God, and that of his very ordinary disciples. Jesus had deep truths to teach his followers. How did the Master Teacher do it? Countless times, Jesus leveraged the power of illustration in his teaching. As you read this sentence, you will almost immediately be able to recall the lessons of the Vine and the Branches, the Prodigal Son, the Mustard Seed, and the Wise and Foolish Builders. You can do so because Jesus used images and examples that made abstract truths concrete. Jesus understood the power of imagination and how it could be used to impress hearts and minds.
Would you like the ideas you share with people to be perceived as concrete, [relevant], familiar, particular, precise, real, and visible? Then learn how to harness the God-given power of the imagination. The next time you are communicating with someone, try to remember what it was like to not know, and use an image or a word picture to help them to see what you see. By doing so, you will make your ideas “sticky,” and they will have more impact. Certainly, many teachers and speakers err by favoring their illustrations and stories and neglecting God’s word in their presentations. I think just as many err by underestimating the power of the imagination to inform the mind and affect the heart.