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.

Discussion about church and corporate communications

Many thanks to All Saint’s Church in Otley for their hospitality last night. We were talking about communications and in particular social media. The church would like to reach out to the local community. They are planning a church re-ordering programme which will involve architectural changes and more importantly a re-invigorating of church life.

In this post I want to capture a few thoughts about the need for the organisation to become comfortable and confident about its own identity, to understand the needs and perceptions of those they want to reach, and to organise opportunities for response. 

Communications is a complex topic and so I think it is important to pin down what the purpose of the communications from the outset. Social media can build relationships between individuals across the community in a very organic way, and/or can be used to support a single corporate identity? Communications can be a functional exchange of information in the short term or a highly creative crafting of perceptions over time, maybe through story telling.

I think the communications challenge we were discussing was to help form a clear identity for the church, to challenge perceptions of what church is about and to encourage participation and membership.

I think these three things come in a logical order. Firstly we need to be clear about who we are as an organisation. If we don’t have that clarity then we can’t hope to connect with the outside world. Once we are comfortable and confident about our identity only then can we embark on the task of changing perceptions. Having changed perceptions and won the argument for belonging we then have to make opportunities for people to actually participate. This last step is where the more functional aspects of communications kick in – creating events, offering invitations and managing the volunteers. But it all starts with confidence of identity and common purpose.

Once we have been through this cycle we begin to generate stories which then help to support our corporate identity and the cycle then begins to feed itself. I repeat that without clarity of identity and purpose we won’t ever get off the starting block.

In the world of corporate identity and brand building, in which I was absorbed at the BBC, single mindedness is very important. There is frankly no point in shooting off in all directions when we are dealing with communications. The way to have impact (or any impact) is to focus a single most powerful message and on an audience you can clearly identify.

To this end we discussed four questions which I think show promise. The four questions come in two pairs. The paired questions are related to each other.

The first two questions are as follows:

1. What is the most outstanding thing we do and have achieved? (part of identity)
2. What single thing are we bursting to tell the world? (our most important message)

The second pair is:

3. To whom must we deliver our single most important message? (specific target audience)
4. How will we reach them? (medium appropriate for audience)

Then when we have the answers we are then able to set out the challenge in a couple of sentences:

We want… (audience),
to believe that… (message),
by showing them… (evidence to support message).

We will do this by…(creative ideas for reaching them).

So for example you may end up with: We want young parents to believe that our church is a safe place to bring up children by meeting our trained and caring staff and seeing what they do. We will arrange a special children’s event at which they can talk to parents and show them our activities. This event will be advertised on the popular local parenting website.

If all this sounds like hard work then so it should be. It may also sound a bit corporate and like running a business but I think we should reflect on some of this.  The task of maintaining a consistent and focused identity is something which the whole community should share and get behind. This requires vision, leadership and organisation. In my experience vision and leadership can be found but the organisational aspects are where it often comes unstuck.

I will reflect more on this, but organising creativity is something which less about control and more about framework and boundaries – much too difficult to reflect on here.

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.

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.

invitation to ascend

ascend-flyer

Tomorrow night sees the continuation of Ilkley's alternative worship services – yes it's true, even respectable ilkley folk are rocking the liturgical boat.

A small group are committed to meeting once as month to grow ideas for creative worship.  The group is made up of people who are involved Churches Together in Ilkley and so it's supported not by just one church but nine churches in the town. Can't believe that there are that many.

There are many such groups around the country but each of them is quite different – the styles of worship grow around the creative talents, needs and inspiration of those involved rather than being imposed.

Tomorrow's service is called Ascending/Descending and responds to the space in which we are holding the event.  Because we haven't settled a permanent venue we decided to hold the service in entrance hall of our house and use the stairwell as a vertical labyrinth.

The stations of activity will include – personal preparation for the journey, sustenance, difficult decisions, sanctuary, companionship, the top and the return. The stations will include video, music, projected images and ritual.

If you would like to visit us tomorrow or join the mailing list please drop me a note and I will give you more details  markwadd1@googlemail.com