You’ve told the perfect story about Helen. You’ve told it perfectly. The audience members, whether 1 person or 1500 people, are transfixed. There are tears in some eyes. Heads are nodding in agreement or identification. No one, it seems, is sleeping, though you are 40 minutes into this presentation 90 minutes after lunch or 30 minutes before.
So what do you say next? What is the next sentence, the sentence that follows?
That’s what this series of posts is about. Last week I suggested that one reason that we aren’t able to find that next sentence is because we are performing rather than teaching, that our focus is on the entertaining rather than helping people take the next step.
“I’m afraid to say that.”
Another reason we aren’t able to find the next sentence is fear. We are afraid of success, afraid of failure. We are afraid to be measured by what we are asking for. We are afraid to confront. We are afraid that we might have to do this again. We are afraid that we will be meddling.
I taught public speaking for several years. One day, a student gave a persuasive speech about becoming an organ donor. She talked about the value of organ donation, about the lives that are saved. She talked about the value of deciding ahead of time, so that your family knows what you want. She talked about the ease of signing up.
It was a wonderful persuasive speech.
Until the end.
“In your hand you have a form. All you need to do is sign it. I’m thinking about taking this step. You should to.”
All the arguments, all the reasons, all the simplicity…but she hadn’t persuaded herself. Why should we sign up if she hasn’t?
If she had acknowledged her own fear, her own uncertainty, I would have been sympathetic. But she had spoken with confidence up to that point.
That’s how fear can mess with our ability to say the next sentence, to call for the change or the choice that we know should follow. We are afraid that we might be held accountable for not living up to what we are asking. We are afraid that if our event is too successful we might have to plan more. We are afraid that if we ask for a clear action on the part of the audience…and no one responds…we’ll be regarded as a failure.
So we hedge. We leave lots of options. We say “think about this.” We focus on the great attendance at the banquet as the measure of success rather than the giving in response to the appeal. We say, “many people like Helen could be affected” rather than simply saying, “I could die, too. So could you.”
People in sales deal with failure every day, if failure is someone telling you “no.” But there are more people speaking than people in sales. There are more people planning events than professionals. There are many of us who are responsible to teach, to preach, to plan events, to bring about change. And many of us aren’t nearly as effective as we would like to be because we are afraid to say the next sentence, the one that will challenge people deeply.
Acknowledging the truth
The other evening I was reminded of a time that I wasn’t afraid.
A man who sometimes attended our church had died. The hospice chaplain was doing the funeral. I was asked to talk a bit about Neal.
He was an interesting and odd person. He had left his family more than once. He was incredibly needy as a person. He had been living in a motel room for 7 years before moving to a nursing home and then, finally, to hospice care.
His grown children came to the funeral, but with a huge amount of (understandable) anger.
And after the welcome and the prayer and a song and some readings from the Bible by the chaplain, I got up to speak.
So what’s the next sentence? The sentence after “hello”?
“Neal wasn’t perfect. You all know that. He disappointed you.”
Suddenly, the kids were paying attention to a pastor who wasn’t going to turn their biological father into a perfect man. They were able to let go of a bit of their anger now that they knew that someone understood it.
I was almost afraid to say that sentence, almost afraid to say the thing that allowed a conversation to begin.
Next, we’re going to look at how to help make sure that the next sentence actually comes next. But while I think about what to say, it’s your turn.
When has fear kept you from following up with what you knew needed to be the next sentence?
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