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.

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.

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?



Death of email. Are we using the right tools? Basecamp & Yammer.

Interested to read in The Times that email is dead for many university students and that social media is becoming the standard tool for communicating with service providers. The article reports that students will use twitter to request information, make complaints or ask for support. Because the courses are expensive and expectations high students will expect responses on demand whatever time of day or night. Are we stretching social media beyond its power as informal conversation tool in much the same way as we often misuse email? Are we best using these media tools according to their specific strengths?

At the community centre I help run we dropped email as the primary way of communicating in favour of Yammer – a private business network modelled on the Facebook interface. The way Yammer and Facebook are structured seems significant in that there are a number of different styles of communication embedded in the one technology. Email is just not as flexible as it needs to be, using email we were being swamped with chit chat and losing important interactions.

There is an important requirement in any human interaction to know what the mode or style of the communication is. Is this a chat, a confidential counselling session, an open ideas session, a formal complaint, a critical negotiation. In our dispersed work environments the tools have replaced the opportunity for face to face engagement so the demands on the technology have grown.

It’s important to get off on the right foot – are we having a recorded conversation that might come back to haunt us or can we say what we like? The tools offer some clue – a twitter post should rarely be seen as a definitive last word, it is usually work in progress. A press release attached to an email might be more definitive, a blog is often a snapshot of someone’s progress in thinking. Using email for an unresolved conversation is quite often a bad idea when the “paper-trail” can be held against us.

So what’s my point. The medium determine the style of communication. We need to be aware of the nature, limits and expectations of the various forms of media. The strength of some good emerging platforms is that they can contain a range of communications styles within one container. Here I hold up two examples which I have been using with success. Both these are private networks which can link to external networks as required and accommodate a range of communication styles.

Yammer is a tool which can connect groups of people and handle a range of styles including broadcast, discussion, formal attachments and private discussion. I am using this at a community centre.

Basecamp is a project oriented tool which can contain formal documentation and accommodate associated discussion. I am using this in my schools projects.

I won’t discuss them in detail here but recommend you give them a try if you run a project with a dispersed team or have an organisation made up of many different groups.

Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.

This is a reflection on how we communicate using social and other media. I have said some things I have regretted on social media in the past, but I’m learning slowly. Vigorous debate on-line is a wonderful thing and to be encouraged. It would be a shame if the mistakes we occasionally make can’t be accommodated by those taking part. Respect for readers and forgiveness for writers is essential if we are to make progress in understanding and build relationships. Without the capacity to be honest and take risks we will be seriously held back.

Each way of communicating requires rules and boundaries which are commonly understood. The way we read, say, a political drama on BBC ONE is very different from the way we interpret the Ten O’clock News which immediately follows it. A harrowing scene in Silent Witness is entertainment, violence shown the news is shocking. Communication requires a relationship in which the language is commonly understood.

The internet hosts many different ways of communicating and social media itself can be broken down into different forms. Even within one form of communication the expectations can be varied, take for example email. Is an email conversation or a formal letter? Can an email be a formal letter in paragraph one and a light hearted chat in paragraph two? How do we know whether a person is joking or is being serious? It seems to me that very few people use email as effectively as they could.

Social media is a minefield of misunderstandings and misinterpretations, and social media is both ephemeral and permanent. A throw away comment on social media intended to be quickly forgotten amid small talk can be permanently etched into the history. When we say something as a poke to get a conversation going we sometimes say things we would like to retract and say sorry for, “I didn’t really mean that, I was playing devils advocate, what I really think is….. “ And if you know the person, forgiveness is quick and easy, but if they are strangers the damage can escalate.

Good communication is founded on good relationships and good relationships can be forged out of good communication. Where strangers are communicating for the first time extreme care is required to establish the rules and boundaries of the conversation. It is dangerous make an assumption that the recipient will discern whether you are being deadly serious or light hearted.

So what should our response to on-line communication be and how should we behave?  I think that the responsibility is as much on the reader as the writer.

For the writer of a public message I think great care should be taken to explain the motivation for the communication and why they choose the words they do. When writing in a public forum we should take the publication as seriously as writing for print or broadcast. This may be an unrealistic expectation but a deep breath should be taken at the very least.

For the reader I think we must make allowances for the spontaneous outbursts some people make. Of course we all say things we regret and we often change our minds, so let’s, be charitable. If we see something we don’t like on social media the worst thing you can do, in my opinion, is respond in anger. Better to be cool and let the facts do the work.

The most powerful communication is that in which the facts speak for themselves and the story is true. The poorest communication is where the emotion masks the real message. At its worst emotion is used in the absence of an argument or defensively. I love humour contained in a fact of a story but I think as soon as the writer uses their own emotional state to get one over on another person they are on a sticky wicket.

So there we have it. I’ve said a few things that I may want to change my mind about, but it’s just a conversation, I’m sure you understand.

Communities Creating Change – Join #OblongLearning on Twitter

As you may know I work part time for a charity in Leeds called Oblong. I’m proud of the achievements of Oblong which has taken on and refurbished a community centre. It delivers transformational projects for communities and individuals including volunteer programmes, mental health courses, arts and social events. There’s a cinema event every month to showcase and support local filmmakers, a media collective undertaking design and communications projects, language classes. There are now more than 50 volunteers, a significant proportion of whom achieve employment not unconnected to the experience they gain at the community centre.

The culture is one of respect for every individual and creation of an environment where they can flourish independently and in partnership with others. The projects we establish come from the volunteers and are led by them

ob-bobThis weekend Oblong is running a two day course called Communities Creating Change for people who want to create real change in their communities and in themselves. Participants will discuss their community’s needs and strengths, learn how to collaborate, engage and think together, practice new skills and make a plan for action. The course will include a look at how we establishing the needs and hopes of the community, how we gather information, communication, collaborative thinking, creative ideas, project management.

The course is full now but the reason I mention it here is because there will be more courses in future and tomorrow we will be extending the discussion to social media by using the Twitter hashtag #OblongLearning . I will try and post a timetable of the discussions tomorrow and schedule some opportunities to join in. In any event there will be nuggets from the group on #OblongLearning from around 10am tomorrow.

Let’s connect.


Inclusive communications and working with volunteers

At the Woodhouse Community Centre we have been immersed in discussions about communication – personal, team and external. We have a flat management structure with a non hierarchical way of working. This means that everyone is involved in the decisions we make and no-one has overall power (theoretically and practically for the most part). Here I want to share some thoughts about communications at Oblong Leeds where I work part time.

We aim for a community where everyone has a high degree of ownership and participation in the decision making, where each member is respected and considered, where the impact of decisions on all members is taken into account. This makes for a complex communications environment.

In the hierarchical corporate world where the CEO is in charge and where money is the motivator things are much simpler. You make a decision and everyone has to comply, mostly. But in our world the community is based on relationships which take into account personal needs as well as business needs. We have to gauge what kind of an impact a decision is going to have on community members not just professionally but also personally.

Communication at the Woodhouse Community Centre operates in a matrix of styles which are all connected – meetups, social,  one to one, on-line and so on.  We have more that 50 volunteers. At first we tried to communicate using email – it only worked for some. We tried to convene monthly assemblies where people could “have their say” few came.

So what are we doing now?  We have largely ditched email in favour of Yammer. Yammer is an on-line social tool for businesses which enables you to collectively follow projects, project discussions and members. We renamed the assembly meeting the Bobalong (play on Oblong) and made it much more social and fun. Good relationships = good communication = good relationships.

Project structure provides a way of encouraging good communication. An important part of the mix are volunteer led projects. Rather than the staff setting up strategic projects and handing them out, the volunteers are steeped in the values and strategic needs of the organisation and encouraged to come up with their own project ideas and get them going themselves. This volunteer ownership of projects is vital and in fact written into come of our funding agreements.

The establishment of projects (rather than simply ongoing activities) is really important. A project in traditional terms has a timeline, goals, a team, hurdles and requires structured communication. A project with a positive goal provides an opportunity for members to work together, build confidence,  affirm, build relationships and feel good about success. Endlessly ongoing activities sometimes lead to fatigue, a breakdown in relationships and isolation to the outside world. So projects can be much more invigorating.

To encourage good and effective project management we are looking at some of the tools which are available for on-line collaborative working. The one we are testing is Basecamp. Basecamp provides a communications structure. The elements include time-scales, tasks, assigned responsibilities, resources and conversation. I’m getting quite excited my this I admit.

Basecamp and Yammer aren’t, of course, a replacement meeting together but what they do mean is that when we get together we have an excellent resource of project knowledge a warmth of relationships.  The difference between Yammer and Basecamp is that Yammer focusses on the social interactions while Basecamp is structured around project management – we would use both.

As an organisation we also use Google Documents which integrates really well with Basecamp meaning that every document, decision, task or event has a collaborative, interactive element to it.

So may I commend to you Yammer and Basecamp and the whole idea of being much more project focussed and social.

You’re welcome to pop into the Woodhouse centre and meet out volunteers.  See old fashioned poster for next Bobalong.


How to set up a wordpress blog in 3 minutes – video

WordPress is a wonderful tool for encouraging children, young people and adults to read, write and reflect on the world around them. I think if we all did it the world would be a more interesting place. Not only does blogging help you develope your own ideas, it helps connect people and build relationships.

You don’t need a web design company to set up your own website or blog (at least to get started). In this video I will demonstrate that it can be done in under three minutes.

mad lemmings

Mad Lemmings, great name for a company that specialises in websites and social media. Ashley Faulkes has been looking at Tweet Adder which is a tool for drilling down into the content of twitter and managing followers.  I’ve been using it to identify users for church parish accounts to find people in a tight locality with  specific interests.  Ashley has produced a nice little presentation about building followers. You can see it here in slideshare

Getting followers is excellent but I there’s a risk of being obsessed with follower numbers so we must not forget that twitter can be a tool for initiating real relationships and more than an just online game. The interesting question is what happens when you have initiated a twitter relationship and what the next steps are. The really exciting outcomes involve people meeting, forming partnerships, getting work, being creative.

So what’s the pathway? How do we build on these connections and what does step by step progress look like beyond these online connections? How do we structure our activity so that we can move beyond virtual gratification? I throw it out as a question, but it’s someting I’m still trying to understand.