Two of the most pivotal aspects of effective communication are also two of the most overlooked: credibility and authenticity. One of the reasons they are overlooked is because many people don’t know what they represent.
Here’s a primer:
Being credible reflects one big idea: you have to be believed to be heard. So how do you gain credibility?
First you have to start with accuracy. Nothing blows your credibility faster than to engage in what I have come to call the “misses” – mispronouncing a word, misquoting a source, or misrepresenting a perspective.
Early on in my ministry at Meck, I gave an illustration that referenced the Mackinac bridge in Michigan. I had never crossed the bridge myself, but I read a great story about it. When I told it, I pronounced it the way it is written – with a hard “c” at the end. That is not how it is pronounced. It’s actually pronounced “Mackinaw.” Immediately after our Saturday night service, a first-time guest who had just moved from Michigan came up and corrected me. And then, when they had finished, a second person (also from Michigan) stopped to correct me.
Once is helpful; twice is annoying.
But I really was glad. Particularly that it happened on a Saturday night and protected me from repeating it throughout the Sunday morning schedule of services.
It also taught me a valuable lesson to double-check everything. Because when you are accurate, enormous credibility can be developed.
After a talk on homosexuality, a woman who was a lesbian and who had been attending our church stopped me and said, “I knew what you were going to say, I just didn’t know how you were going to say it. It was fair, and you gave me something to think about.” In fact, she bought several copies of the message to give to her friends. Her line of thinking intrigued me, because the starting point for her was accuracy: “Is he going to distort homosexuality and the homosexual life?” By avoiding stereotypes and caricature, I earned the right to speak to her about my understanding of the Bible's perspective on homosexuality.
Attention to accuracy will serve you well beyond the immediate topic, because when that same woman listens to me talk about other subjects – such as the issue of salvation and eternity – she will probably have greater trust in me. I was found to be accurate in an area where she had firsthand knowledge, which is a good sign that I will do my homework on other topics and can be trusted there as well.
Another important area that is crucial in regard to building and maintaining credibility is the practice of personal integrity. No speaker can effectively model the entire body of Christian truth with perfection, but if the gulf is too wide between word and deed, then credibility is at risk.
If people know that I am committed to my family, and that I have raised my kids in a way that has produced godliness and character, they listen to me more intently about parenting. If they know that I live within my means and have managed my money well, they listen to me talk about money with more openness.
Credibility is found in doing what we say we’re going to do and be. There’s an old line that says, “Who you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.” We could adjust it a bit to read, “Who you aren’t speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.”
Authenticity is no more - and no less - than being a person who can be believed, accepted, trusted, and relied upon to be that which is as presented.
I talked with a woman in our church who had been unchurched for seventeen years before coming to Meck. I asked her what it was about our team of communicators that had impacted her. I was surprised that she did not even have to pause. She said, “I never felt preached to. Instead I felt talked to. I could identify with you as people. You shared your struggles - your life experiences - in a way that I could relate to. You didn’t come pretending to have your act together, talking down to everybody.”
Authenticity is when a speaker is willing to share who they really are, without masks or pretension. I’m not talking about being maudlin, or having little or no discretion in terms of revealing your personal life. The key is to be authentic, which means to be real.
People in your audience know that you have junk in your life – they’re just waiting to see if you’ll own up to it. Many of us were taught to withhold our true selves from those we serve. The idea was that if the realities of our life became known, we would lose our moral influence and ability to provide spiritual leadership.
In reality, the opposite is true.
A mother who has lost her child to a drunk driver has a greater ability to speak to the subject of drinking and driving than the average police officer. A person who has struggled in a difficult marriage and remained committed is much more winsome and compelling than someone who proclaims, “We never argue with each other.”
So share when you have screwed up more than when you were the hero. And share where you have life-long struggles. I know, this is tough, but it can be so helpful to others. Most folks at Meck know that I’ve struggled with relationships and community. I never had much of either growing up; and my personality reflects my struggles with intimacy and openness beyond my family and a close circle of friends. Knowing that this is one of my “areas” brings an honesty to my speaking.
Authenticity does something else, too: It gives the listener permission to be authentic. When we are open and authentic about our lives, it allows those to whom we minister to be open and honest about their lives. Ministry begins when you can create a context where people can stand up and say, “My name is John, and I'm addicted to porn; My name is Betty, and I have breast cancer; My name is Steve, and my marriage is falling apart; My name is Bill, and I have AIDS; My name is Carol, and I just lost my job; My name is Alice, and I’m lonely.”
When this happens, we open the door to the giving and receiving of both grace and truth.
And isn’t that what we’re trying to accomplish as communicators?
James Emery White
For more on effective communication, see James Emery White’s, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker).
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.