Dr. James Dobson is an icon to many millions – founder of Focus On The Family with a daily radio broadcast that is one of the largest in the world. (Also author of a dozen books, and national spokesperson for Christian causes on all of the major TV talk shows.) This past week I was privileged to spend some time listening to him in a few different settings – and I’m not sure whether I was more impressed when we were chatting on the tender of our cruise ship berthing in Sitka, Alaska, or when he was speaking to 1,000 people about the passion of his heart – the importance of the family.
The Hard-Soft Surprise
A tall man at 6’3″, Jim Dobson is soft spoken, and mild in manner. He LOOKS approachable, and even in the formal setting of speaking to thousands he jokes, and kids and gives asides. In two major addresses he started with some pictures of his first grandson – the pride and love was palpable. And then a story or two of hunting, or his recent visit with Prince Charles, or how he had to kill a bear to save his life. He is an interesting man, to say the least.
(He’s also the author of the mega best selling “Dare To Discipline.”)
But then Dr. Dobson is called Jim by people who don’t know him well (including me) because he actslike he is one of us. And he never changes his manner whether sitting with you or from the platform of a major stage – but his force and energy and words change when he speaks from the conviction of his heart. He exhibits more than anyone I’ve seen the Hard-Soft Surprise – the contrast between the nature and demeanor of a man (or woman) and the substance of his content and the conviction of his message. With the softness we are drawn in, and with the substance we become convicted ourselves.
More and more I become impressed with the fact that people of public stature who are authentic reflect their core in a way that is both tangible and intangible. Tangible in that there are specific behaviors you can point to which let you know they mean what they say. And intangible in that you just “get it,” or in the words of Robert Heinlein, you “grok it.”
Jim Dobson is one of those who show and express their core, and you ‘grok it.’ (You may not agree with it, but that’s a different story. The task of a communicator is to express their message in a way to convince and influence the listener to the best of their ability to their conviction – and then let it be. You can’t convince everyone because there are honest differences of opinion – unfortunately most people can’t communicate their opinion effectively.)
One of the reason President Bush has a communications problem is that he is not a ‘core communicator.’ When he speaks you feel he is acting as President, rather than being President. When someone is a core communicator they speak on their subject at any time and in any time frame and frame their message well. Nido Qubein does that on management and leadership. Bill Clinton did that on just about anything (and still does pretty much.) Most specialists who know how to consciously communicate will do that. Jim Dobson is such a man, but he is more than a specialist.
- Stories – above all he is a storyteller. Story after story to illustrate points. And the impact is profound. In his first message he spoke with an incredible grasp of detail – concepts and conviction on the importance of the family in our society. And yet all who heard that message will never forget the story of the farmhands who had to stay in the field. As all who have a dedication must ‘stay in the field’ even when it’s hot and sweaty and there’s straw in your shirt that itches.
- Themes – in one message he took a simple metaphor of the cellphone, and continuously asked “is your cell phone ringing” with a message of change. Of course there were about a dozen stories in this speech too, but he continuously came back to “is your cell phone ringing?”
- Notes – I think he had a few notes on a notecard, but you couldn’t tell because he never looked at them. When people are core communicators, they may have notes – and it’s certainly a good idea to be prepared and not wing it – but you don’t need them. You KNOW the message – and it will come out right as the muse or spirit directs.
- Candor and vulnerability – great speakers put themselves in their message. Jim Dobson was no exception, as he was candid about mistakes, told stories on himself (and his vibrant wife Shirley who is a great speaker in her own right) and did not hesitate to voice his opinions.
- No false humility – many hesitate, and have a false humility – it’s not effective, and actually not very authentic. If someone is a public figure, they need to realize that people WANT them to be public figures, even when they know it is a gift and they are not that “great.” The problem in Hollywood, politics, sports and even in business is that the majority think that THEY are great, and don’t realize that they are blessed. Jim Dobson knows who he is, but he fully realizes and shows that he is blessed.