Be nice if the CofE could do some proper brand advertising

It concerns me that the Church of England for whom I work sometimes equates the transfer of text based information with communication. A word written or read out loud is not the same as a word received.

The written or spoken word in a religious context is often a kind of legal transaction which establishes the terms of membership. The words are a statement of what we are signed up to. We are connected in a formal sense but it requires creative expression to bring the meaning to life. I wish we could be more like the advertisers, or at least learn from them.growing-younger-header.png.576x260_q100


In fact, I spoke too soon! Birmingham diocese has grasped the advertising thing with both hands in this message – “we’re growing younger”. In an unconventional move the diocese wants to install significant numbers of young people in positions of leadership.

Yamaha places a piano in a shopping area inviting the pubic to play.
Yamaha places a piano in a shopping area inviting the pubic to play.  An accessible and creative brand. A live product demonstration.

It has been said that St Francis of Assisi urged his followers to preach the Gospel, “use words if you have to”, but maybe he never said those words, I don’t know. The point is that it’s the stories that make the communication – every colourful detail of how we live our lives becomes our sermon.

We are compelled to tell our story by whatever means we have at our disposal. It is no use saying that words are better than pictures or any other medium for that matter.

What matters is the connection. The famous theme at the start of EM Forsters Howards End is “only connect”. That’s just it – THE CONNECTION. We live in fragments searching for a connection and in the end that’s what we strive to achieve.

Lloyds Bank advertising in Leeds
Lloyds Bank advertising in Leeds positioning banking as part of your life story and values. It takes no time at all to read.

I think it is fair to say that we live in a time where the captured image is the medium of choice when it comes to communicating stories; from films to magazines, to websites.  The power of the photograph to connect with people is extremely powerful.  But we must remember that according to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. I understand from this that the words on the printed page can be spoken, and that the voice may convey images, and that the images can embody the stories.

Pictures have always been engaging and in our busy, mobile world pictures are now also extremely convenient.  An image can communicate an idea far more quickly than a paragraph of text. It is this convenience in our speeded up world that is the important thing to remember. This surge of interest in photography is not to diminish the power of words at all, it is simply to say that in our busy lives we need to keep it short. In fact pictures can assume tremendous power when accompanied by a few words of text. Poetry is a wonderful form. This leads me on the Twitter.

Twitter is a social media channel that restricts posts to 140 characters with the option of accompanying image, as you may know. The two most striking observations we can make is firstly that brevity (both in expressing and reading) is important and secondly that the message does not persist, by which I mean that it is designed to be visible only for a short time.

iPhone 6
The on-screen image is the message of this iPhone ad. Design and creativity.

So, the way we consume messages today is in the fleeting moments available to us.

As a society we are expected to be in sync with the conversations going on around us as they happen. These fragments of conversation are connected to other fragments of conversation and eventually coalesce into coherent ideas. We must be alert to the conversation.

The ideas are forming collectively with many voices participating. There is a flow and a rhythm to the dialogue which can be a beautiful thing. The connectedness of these conversations is a step towards being connected as humans and so here lies a wonderful prospect.

Yes I love photography and I love advertising because those who excel in these arts have understood that communication is about connection and  relationship not simply the transfer of information.

For those who are stuck with email

Today a touch of déjà vu.

We were discussing the cripplingly high volume of CofE emails pouring through the system. This was the very same conversation we had at Oblong Leeds a few years back.  Then we formed a strategy of moving some business communications to social media which worked well.

Email is such a desperately boring way of transferring information isn’t it?  This especially so when there are now so many more interesting ways to communicate. So here for those who are stuck with email but would rather be on Twitter…

1. Reduce the number of emails you send

2. Check and re-write your email
Do this for clarity even if you are busy, it’ll save other people’s time.

3. Avoid using email for conversations
Long conversation threads are difficult to keep up with.

4. Raise it in the team meeting instead

5. Speak to someone first or as an alternative

6. Make it clear whether the email is sent for action or information

7. Is the email sent to the right person?

8. Avoid multiple topics in one email

9. Use of the subject line
For very short messages like “I’ll be ten minutes late” or “we won”.

10. Structure the email with important stuff at the start
A clear subject line and a short opening which makes the reason for the email clear.

11. Tone of voice
Anger and high emotion should be avoided in an email. Don’t use email to tell someone off.

12. Do not expect recipients to deal with an email straight away
We might, though, expect a short acknowledgement of receipt.

13. Avoid abbreviations and assumptions

14. Do not copy people in unless they really need to know

15. Don’t “reply all” unless required

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Talking about Talking

A day talking about talking. First of all in Keighley looking at how the town understands the difficult issue of sexual exploitation. This is a scourge that afflicts every community almost without exception. The consensus seems to be that this is something we must learn to talk about.

Discussing difficult issues is more that simply daring to speak. It is the very nature of the subject which holds us back from conversation not necessarily an unwillingness. As in many important areas of life we sometimes fail to find the language and the confidence to speak. In the case of sexual exploitation there is a fear of the facts, some of which are unclear and clouded by prejudice. We lack the confidence to speak because we worry about the consequences or the complexity of the issue and wonder if we have properly understood.

The second part of my day has been immersed in the discipline of Appreciative Inquiry. Appreciative Inquiry provides a framework for asking questions in a way that exposes the positive. Rather than asking about problems and weaknesses we ask what has been exceptional and  search for those golden nuggets which we can discover and refine. Apologies if this simplification betrays my inexperience of this.

The broader idea for today is that good dialogue requires space, framework, sensitivity. How we ask questions is as important as what we ask. The tools can seriously influence the answers you get.

Creating a safe and fair space for properly examining our work and issues is vital. We know from the General Elections that debate can be manipulated and steered in way that is outrageously manipulative. There were whole communities and issues that were not heard in the run up to the elections – and largely because some of them would have been problematic for any potential government.

To create a properly open space for conversation requires the courage to confront the answers you get. If we are being truly open then we have to set aside our inclination for confrontation and defensiveness. True dialogue will reveal that issues are often not as black and white as we might like to think – and that those we might condemn as being wrong may require understanding and accommodation.

A stimulating day.

Three things the church can learn from advertising

I’m writing up a few thoughts on what church communications could learn from advertisers. It’s dangerous territory, of course, because the church and advertising has always been a little controversial. But here are three things.

1. People make decision based more on how they feel than what they think. Pretty much most advertising appeals in some way to the emotions. What will my audience feel about my product, organisation or service?

2. Understanding the target audience in advertising is hugely important and often buying choices are aligned to personal identity. People make lifestyle choices; products are the trappings of identity. Will my product, organisation or service enhance my audiences sense of their own identity?

3. The need to have high impact within a few words. When my audience sees my logo, twitter post, Facebook status or video will they be hooked within five seconds.

This is a video produced for Liverpool One Church. Like it or loath it I think they are confident in who they are and who they want to pull in “we are designing a church for people like you” they say (the identity thing).  It goes against my idea of a diverse local church and words like, “not your average church” seem less than respectful toward other denominations. However I admire their focused and energetic approach.

A church without a plan is a muddle – specially on social media

I’m putting together a few ideas about social media for a session with some of our local churches later in the month, so here’s where my mind is drifting. I am convinced social media presents an opportunity for the Church of England to portray itself as relevant, exciting and with a really quite wonderful part in our communities. However there is a risk that without self confidence and a clear message it could make for more of a muddle.

Creating a coherent web and social media presence for any organisation requires a plan and strong sense of purpose. The bones of a communication strategy consist of knowing the audience, having a clear expression of your own identity and a single minded message. Is the church ready for that? I hope so.

Vast numbers of people are now congregating on-line to shop, discuss, show off, celebrate and organise themselves. For most businesses and other organisations having a mobile friendly interactive website with integrated social media accounts is now absolutely essential. Over the Christmas season it has been astonishing how huge e.commerce has been. To be almost permanently on-line is now what you might call normal behaviour for many of us.

But the communications environment is now so very cluttered that the trick is not just to be present but also to be discoverable, to be noticed. It’s very easy to be a producer and publisher of content these days but let’s not be complacent – who’s going to notice our little drip in the ocean? Our on-line presence needs to stand out and be crystal clear in what it is saying.

To be discoverable means that we must be present not just on social media but in a range of media and in a strikingly creative way. At every turn and at every glance we must have an unmistakable, distinctive presence. We must be unshakably confident in who we are, what we stand for and what we look like. This is our brand.

Identity is weakened it it’s not consistent. A church that doesn’t have consistency across all its brand touch points is heading for confusion and disengagement. Every single person helps to form the identity of the organisation and so everyone must internalise the live out the values and mission of the church.

There is a temptation to believe that to appeal to the world we must try to be like the world with which we are trying to connect, but that works against being distinctive. What could be worse that being a chameleon in a crowded place (unless you work for Mi5) – let’s go for bright red not camouflage green.

What makes the Church of England distinctive is its extraordinary history and more importantly the message that we are loved and saved by God’s grace though Jesus Christ. It seems to me that we must be confident about the things that set the church apart – the really big differences. There is a temptation to talk only about the things that we have in common with our audience and to craft our image in a way that we think will be least offensive to our visitors, but there comes a point when we need to assert difference.

Here lies the biggest challenge for the CofE, not so much in using social media but in being confident and bold in the messages it puts out. There are encouraging signs of boldness from Archbishop Welby with some big statements on social justice. Can our local churches be equally bold when it comes to challenging local decision makers and drawing attention to local needs?  But whatever we say we must anchor the message in our single most important proposition, the reason we are who we are; unafraid to talk about the person of Christ.

So the Church of England is grappling with what it means to do business on-line. The church is not flogging goods (though it might), but more importantly telling life changing stories which is well suited the the medium. Nevertheless, the practical drive for the church to embrace on-line technology is in fact about selling something – getting people to buy into the real church and not some figment of the public imagination.

I’m looking forward to seeing some bold, creative and challenging messages from the church on-line.

Keeping perspective on social media. Oblong, All Saints and the CofE

I have been working with Oblong Leeds, a community development charity for some years now and we are at last getting round to re-working the organisation’s website. I’m also helping to develop the on-line presence of All Saints church in Ilkley and am part of a forum to discuss the on-line activities of the new CofE diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales. I have resolved to be a bit more diligent in capturing my thoughts here, flimsy as they sometimes are.

I’m getting involved in these activities because I feel that communities must communicate, there are voices that need to be heard and stories that really must be told.

I’m not a web designer or an expert in social media, though I have worked for the BBC and more recently for ITV as the manager responsible for a news website. I can say that I am passionate about telling stories. Stories about who we are and the places we live should not be left to the professional journalists alone; talented as they may be there is only so much they can do. The world is so much bigger.

The big sparkling new diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales, whatever you think of the decision, throws up an opportunity for fresh thinking, particularly in the area of communications. We are not talking about a clean slate because there is much that is good, but the disruption of re-organisation gets people thinking and talking – and talking is certainly what we should be doing. If we want to encourage conversation then Yorkshire is a great place to do it – blunt, diverse and passionate communities of every persuasion and experience.

The incisive question I am working with right now is as follows: How can we equip communities to tell their stories connecting them to each other and with the wider world?

As All Saints Ilkley puts it we are “finding connections with God” and in the process we are finding connections with each other (or is it the other way round?). As I find myself repeating, communications and relationships are absolutely dependent on one another.

At its most profound, communication wouldn’t require technology or language, we would just know. However our relationships are highly dependent on language and technology and if we are to put relationships with each other and God at the highest level then grapple with language and technology we must.

The on-line world of websites and social media is often dismissed by some people as an irritation and a waste of time. I would urge anyone to look at how radically the process of maintaining relationships has changed in recent years. There are extraordinary opportunities for people to open conversations with strangers and experience different worlds. Websites, social media, photography, video if an end in themselves would be a waste of time, but there is real evidence that the creative expression these tools enable is bringing people together with amazing significance. Social media in some parts of the world is literally revolutionary. Shared visual media is extending the reach of communication to those who struggle with words. Power is shifting.

When we’re setting up our social media channels and websites I think it is essential to keep an eye on these higher opportunities for bringing communities together, telling important stories, giving marginalised people a voice, seeing the the world as it really is.

For me, participation is the key which is why I hate the concept of the web-master or the notion that there are ‘experts’ in social media. Intuitive use of these tools should be the aim but I accept that we need people to encourage and share good practice.

Even today at Oblong Leeds we’ve been doing our quarterly planning and on-line communication is playing a big part. We are driving for outcomes in education & skills, employment, raised aspirations, expanded world view, community cohesion – so what activities can we implement? It could be those activities which connect people together, give us a strong sense of identity and self worth, pull people together around a common purpose.

Websites and social media can’t change anything. I cant change anything. I do believe websites and social media may improve the possibility of change just so long as we don’t lose sight of the big goals which can be reached by shared conversations and relationship building.

Make it cool to downgrade and support those who can’t afford to be connected.

Had a very interesting chat with many in his late 70s today. He wanted to use the web and social media but felt he was being sold technology that was over specified. He bought a phone from the supermarket for £15 which suited his needs and now wanted something to write emails and connecting with people on-line socially. A family member suggested an iPad but he said this did all sorts of things he didn’t see a need for and that £400 was too expensive.

I agree that there is a pressure to buy more technology than we actually need. The upgrade culture is perhaps rather manipulative and we can certainly get drawn into the adventure of technology. It’s fun to see what the latest upgrades can do but I feel we must be wise to the marketing strategies behind all this.

I believe it would be a good thing if consumers occasionally pushed back on the upgrade froth and embraced downgrading as a cool thing to do. I have an old iMac at home which I use for video editing. The machine started to slow down and become unreliable which I put down to its age. I upgraded to the operating system Maverick which killed it completely. What I did then was to restore (downgrade) all the software from a few years ago and ignore the Apple alerts telling me I “needed” to upgrade the software – the iMac now runs beautifully and I’m very pleased with it.

Next, I have an iPhone 3Gs which really doesn’t work on the current sofware and many apps won’t work with the old software so instead I’m using a £12 phone from Tescos. My laptop is a Chromebook which doesn’t crash, starts up in 7 seconds, is lightweight and you can get one for well under £200.  Neither of these items is insured and I take them everywhere.

It’s not that I don’t think iPads are superb or hanker after a top of the range MacBook but I think I need to embrace some technology as a utility and be more aware of what I need.

In the course of my work, I encounter many people who frankly can’t afford to spend much on technology – and even if they do probably shouldn’t. I have seen at least one person on benefits who doesn’t eat well and yet sports the latest iPhone, iPad, camera etc.

To be very serious here, technology is not just for fun, it’s a very, very important part of our lives if we are to participate fully in our communities, businesses and national affairs. Technology gives us a competitive edge particularly in communications. It’s essential that everyone regardless of wealth should be connected so I do hope that we can see more respect shown to those who don’t upgrade who can only afford the basic requirements.

Perhaps you also can downgrade as an act of solidarity?

James Foley – a will to find who these people really are.

James Foley’s death is so utterly distressing. In the BBC’s interview with him from a few years ago he said, “There’s extreme violence, but there’s a will to find who these people really are.” This was one of the things that really struck me together with his desire to tell untold stories. Just heartbreaking to read the reports.

It seems to me that finding out who these people really are is essential if we are to move forward in a proper manner. Thank God for journalists who are determined enough to get close to people and uncover truth and help us see the world from beyond our own limited perspective.

Finding out “who these people are” requires us to get close to people we would rather not and talking with them – actions which under the present circumstances seem abhorrent. We find it more convenient to relate to categories – terrorists, Americans, journalists, Isis – but when I read about James and see his agonised parents in the papers I don’t relate to a journalist or an American, but more appropriately someone’s son.

Seeing people as categories like “the poor”, for example, is perhaps adopted for expedient reasons. Marketeers create market segments to enable better focus for targeted campaigns and will encourage us to identify with lifestyle groups to dehumanising effect. Politicians also find the communication challenge much easier if we talk about “middle England” or “people on benefits”. Terrorists perhaps only know “the West” or “America”.

But communication and relationship can’t be separated and difficult as it is we must celebrate and respect those journalists who strive to get close to people whom we would really prefer to categorise.

We must hear their stories and get to know who they really are – even if we do decide to bomb them.

Telling stories on social media using video and stills

The use of video in social media is on the increase.  Vine, Youtube and Vimeo are popular services and video increasingly is being used in blogs, on twitter and Facebook.  It is easy to make high quality video on mobile phones and increased internet speeds now makes it possible to zap out a quick video post as part of social media  activity.   This explosion stills and video we have seen on-line is a really important shift in the way we communicate with each other.

The advice  we’re getting now is that if you really want to connect with people in the social media environment incorporating video and stills can have a bigger impact than text alone.  However, as more people are using video clips the novelty is bound to wear thin and so my thought is that canny social media users will need to pay more attention to the quality and relevance of the content.  By quality and relevance I mean is the story told well and is it of timely interest to the audience.

Questions for reflection

  • What does telling a story mean for the way we take our pictures and video?
  • How important is it that we publish our post at a particular moment in time?
  • When we publish stills, video and text are we contributing to a story which will be engaging for our particular audience?
  • What insights does our story provide which will be of fresh interest to our followers?
  • Is it our small story or is it part of a much bigger story?