Communication lessons from Pope Francis

A recent speech from the pontiff offers timeless linguistic lessons for communicators from every tongue and tribe. Levity and brevity are heavenly, but beware the temptation of adjectives.

Pope Francis comms lessons

How long has it been since your last confession of overusing adjectives?

We’ve long espoused the gospel of brevity here at Ragan, but it seems we have a powerful new ally in the fight against fluff: Pope Francis. The pontiff spoke to his comms team at the Vatican this week, praising the virtues of “austere language” and touting the power of stout nouns.

His speech preaches the good news of simple, clear and straightforward language, and it offers timeless wisdom for communicators from any global tribe. Meditate on these snippets from Pope Francis’ speech, along with a few salient takeaways:

Sprinkle in gentle humor, and speak from the heart.

I have a speech to read… it’s not that long, it’s seven pages… but I’m sure that after the first one the majority of you will fall sleep, and I won’t be able to communicate.”

Papa Francisco had a seven-page speech prepared by Dicastery of Communication staffers, but he immediately veered off script—opting instead to speak from the heart.

Humor busts up boredom, and levity can grab an audience’s attention. It’s not always appropriate, but a bit of gentle humor can be a soothing balm of Gilead for your readers’ souls.

Use vivid metaphors.

“You communicate with the soul and the body; you communicate with the mind, the heart, the hands; you communicate with everything. The true communicator gives everything, he gives all of himself – as we say in my country, ‘he puts all the meat on the grill.’”

You don’t have to be an Argentine-born Pontifex Maximus to serve up meaty metaphors of this nature. Stay undaunted, pledge to serve your colleagues, and keep slapping that meaty content on the grill for your target audiences.

But cut the fluff.

We have fallen into the culture of adjectives and adverbs, and we have forgotten the strength of nouns. The communicator must make people understand the weight of the reality of nouns that reflect the reality of people. And this is a mission of communication: to communicate with reality, without sweetening with adjectives or adverbs.”

Amen. (Here’s our list of unholy adjectives you can probably delete.)

Uplift, encourage and edify your colleagues.

Thank you for your work, thank you for this department.”

“And you are specialists in communication, you are technicians in communication. We must not forget this.” 

When’s the last time you thanked a customer or someone you work with? Be generous with praise, and use your voice to uplift those around you. Be a steady source of positive energy and encouragement.

Go beyond ‘mere advertising.’

“But what should communication be like? One of the things you must not do is advertising, mere advertising.”

Here, Pope Francis exhorts his communicators not to behave like other “human businesses,” which exist solely to sell stuff. Instead, communicate in a way that naturally, gently draws people in. He warns against aggressive “proselytism” in favor of winsome “attraction.”

Avoid the hard sell.

Be merciful.

“A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just.”

This quote wasn’t from his recent speech, but boy, is that true or what?

Err on the side of compassion. Be slow to rebuke colleagues, and try to stay above the corporate fray.

If you’re feeling ambitious, you might even try a “year of mercy” as Pope Francis declared in 2016. I tried to do so, and failed, due to an unfortunate grand theft auto situation that we can discuss another time, perhaps.

However, regardless of your position or religion, a little bit of mercy always goes a long way.

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