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… a lot of inspiration

Every once in a while, I run a one-day workshop for preachers on “refreshment”. Amongst many practical tips such as ‘the value of the nap’, I also urge every preacher to ensure that they are fed by the creative inspiration of others.  Whilst relaxation itself is important, it is also vital to feed the mind. Anyone who peddles words must make a regular and concerted effort to observe how others are using them. Short stories can often be a good source of inspiration – since their shorter form bears more relation to the sermon than the longer form of the novel.

At this point I would like to recommend the investment of a few minutes to visit the ‘story tree’ pictured below (you can visit it by clicking the image). Despite everything that the prophets of doom tell us about the death of verbal creativity as young people are drawn into a catatonic stupor by their video games – this tree suggests otherwise. Earlier this year BBC Radio 2 launched a competition to write a 500 word story. The competition attracted 74,000 entries from young people aged 13 and under. This seems like quite a tally for a supposedly dying art!

Go on – plunge in and pick a story or three. I have already shed a tear over Al Cappucino, and smiled at the cow on the bus – but to tell you any more would be to spoil the fun…

Don’t forget – click on the tree to find the storires

Soppy dog and floppy rabbit tug at the heartstrings

I am frequently a waste of advertisers’ money. The reason for this is that I am prone to falling asleep in front of the TV. All that money, all that creative brilliance is quite simply wasted on me as the TV plays away in the background. Every once in a while, though, comes an advert so punchy, witty and brilliant that I cannot but pay attention. The example below from Thinkbox , designed by Advertising Agency Red Brick Road would be one example. In its sixty seconds it perfectly conveys its message about the power of TV advertising – QED.

Throughout this week I am on BBC Radio 2 for two minutes twice each night. Having such a time restriction makes you think about absolutely every word you choose. If preachers only had one…or two minutes each week – I wonder how they might use them?

Got the bottle

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of understated design. Last year Hong Kong design student Jonathan Mak Long, shot to fame when he paid graphic tribute to Steve Jobs on the day his death was announced. Long’s reworking of the apple design, with Steve Jobs’ profile where the bite should be  went around the world in a matter of moments. (For a reminder, click here)

It was spotted by advertising agency Ogilvy, and they commissioned him to work on the Coca Cola ‘open happiness’ campaign in China.  When you see the design, below, it is no wonder that it is proving popular. It takes a minute to spot the bottle – but throughout that minute Ogilvy have your attention. I shall look forward to seeing his work in the UK too.

I suspect this tale of good design rewarded would be one of which the late Mr Jobs would have approved.

…but old comms writ large

Yesterday I read an article by Maurilio Amorim on the challenges of communicating with a new generation.  The article starts well enough with arresting phrases such as ‘world is one large media bucket ‘. However, by the time I reached the end I was reminded of Milton’s phrase from the 17th Century that ‘New presbyter is but old priest writ large’. Of course it is true that our rate of information transfer has expanded exponentially. Of course it is true that ‘ information seeks and finds us whenever we are‘.  That aside, though, aren’t the rules governing effective communication the same as they ever were?

In Amorim’s post we are told that:

  • Publishers must be aware of the competitive world beyond the printed page.
  • Educators must recognise that education is more than the recital of facts.
  • Pastors and preachers must develop an understanding of the timeline of faith.
  • Employers must acknowledge that there is more to the life of their employees than the workplace.
  • Parents must help their children to develop a moral compass, rather than just dressing them in moral armour.

These are all valid points – but are any of them new?

I believe that discussions in this area in 2012 and beyond will need to focus less on what we do in communications (which will always be fundamentally the same) and more on what we are. As Homo Iunctus (connected humankind), how do we actually understand ourselves?


Who Needs Words indeed!

Time to return from Wales and back to preaching tomorrow. However, before I do so, a brief stop in the Welsh Valleys. On Thursday I spotted a road-sign so obscure and intriguing that I almost lost my concentration whilst craning round to look at it. Thankfully there was another example a little further down the road, so I got a second bite of the cherry. As it turns out I was particularly fortunate – since only four examples of this particular sign exist in Wales. When I looked at it numerous possible interpretations sprang to mind:

  • Danger of alien abduction (unlikely)
  • Star wars testing range (improbable)
  • No mobile homes with satellite dishes (feasible, in a popular holiday destination)
In fact, the signs were erected to tell the drivers of heavy goods vehicles not to rely on their sat navs to send them down these narrow roads, since many had come to grief by doing so.


The thing is, with signs as with sermons, unless they are clear, there is little point having them. A pictogram like the one above must make sense instantly if it is to be of any help at all. Maybe this is why only four of the signs were ever displayed?

Yesterday Nick Baines, who wrote the Foreword to my book Who Needs Words, was kind enough to blog about it. He writes that it gives ‘confidence to those who feel a bit daunted by the plethora and complexity of modern communications media‘ and that it offers ‘good stuff to anyone interested in communicating better’.

Hopefully all of us want to communicate better. I know that I shall never remove my ‘L’ plates in this particular field whilst I still have the power of speech. As a communicator and preacher, though, I shall keep the picture of the little sign above in my head – and try to prize clarity over obscurity every time!

…and the intrusion of technology

Tomorrow it is my privilege to attend the Christian New Media Conference in Central London.  The programme is packed, the themes are fascinating, and the speakers are set to stimulate mind and heart. However, if I’m honest the thing I’m looking forward to most is face time. By that I don’t mean the tech-enabled illusion of proximity created by video calls. I mean the pure joy of meeting people face to face with whom I usually correspond by 140-character bursts of text. I want to see the crease around their eyes when they smile, I want to watch their forehead furrow when they think. I want to hear the sound of their voices and maybe even see the splot of coffee they have spilt on their clothes as the conversation gets more animated. In other words, I am looking forward to the mess and wonder of human conversation.

This morning I had a scheduled meeting with the communications director of a charity. The agenda for our conversation was social media communications, and so I had intended to set up my laptop on the table between us. In the end, I did not do so. The computer was needed elsewhere, and in fact it would have spoilt our conversation. We did look things up online – but only after  allowing our imaginations to run free. The computer served only to confirm how things were possible, not whether they were helpful. Sometimes its worth thinking about the geography of conversation, I think – and those time when the angularity of technology can intrude on the round edges of the conversational space.

Meanwhile, I must turn to my computer, and find out how to get there tomorrow…


A good day for words

Three hundred and sixty nine years ago today, The British Parliament was opened for the first time with a speech in English rather than in Latin. That same Parliament passed the Statute of Pleading, which allowed Members of Parliament to debate in English. The ability to debate things close to our heart in our own tongue is a privilege which we should not take for granted.

English language day feels like a good day to be thinking about words.

The priceless word of a speaking God to his creation finds its voice in the myriad voices of his followers. This can be wonderful, since it means that God is heard in as many voices and is seen in as many colours and is felt in as many textures as His spokesmen and spokeswomen will allow. Their character and experience and humanity become part of the telling. However, this brings threats as well as opportunities.

– from Who Needs Words

"English as she is spoke" - wikimedia

Painting the Bible

Some years ago I returned to my former training college, Spurgeon’s as guest preacher at the end of a narrative preaching course.  After I had preached, we repaired to a lecture room for taht peculiar form of vivisection which we call sermon critique. Along the way a Romanian student, who was having to choose his words carefully in a foreign tongue, said the following:

You haven’t preached the story you have painted it.

Every time I have struggled to construct a biblical narrative, or puzzled over the selection of the right word, those words have come back to me.

Yesterday, though, I came across a Biblical painter of another kind entirely. His story is told in the Bible Society’s magazine Word in Action, and he lives Gurage people in Ethiopia. His name is Melak Genet Brehe Grebre Kidan (on the right in the picture below), and he is 78 years old. Over the years he has painted 55 churches in the rich illustrative style you see in the picture below. Amongst a largely illiterate people he sees this as a divine mission:

God has asked us to make sure the health of the church continues and the Bible lives on in the church pictorially


My question is this – in a society where most of the people in church are literate- what are we doing (with words or pictures) to make sure the Bible lives on in the church pictorially?

Positive use of negative space

When I was writing Who Needs Words, there came a point where I had to write about silence. After all, silence in speech, rather like white space amongst print – allows us to discern what is really there. At the time I used the illustration below, and asked whether it showed four black rectangles or one white cross.

Just today, however, someone sent me the wonderful picture below. Can you see the two faces on this handsome cow’s face?  A bit like the silence between words – the secret’s in the spaces!

A lesson in flannelgraph

Yesterday in church somebody kindly approached me with a carrier bag of books they had salvaged from their mother’s house before she moves. There were one or two amongst them which will be useful – not least a dictionary of etymology. However, it is probably the gem below which caught my eye the most. Published in 1959, it presents outlines for 12 flannelgraph talks on everything from strong drink to Christmas celebration. Forget your powerpoint, delete your prezi – its all in here! Not only that, but each talk uses only three shape – a cross, a circle, and a heart, so no complex cutting out of letters is required.

You might have thought that the medium was the most old-fashioned thing here. However, you would be wrong, as this snippet from the ‘script’ on temperance might suggest:

Not quite sure where to start with my discomfort on that! Suffice it to say that the message would be unpalatable even delivered in the most modern medium.

I was just flicking through the pages of this 1950’s gem when news popped through about the astonishing success of the YouVersion Bible App. If you click on the link, you will see it has now been installed over 30 million times worldwide. The message is twenty-one centuries old and more – but people are still clammering for it delivered in the most accessible way. A good message can be obscured by a poor medium, but a poor message will seem unattractive no matter how it is presented.

Not sure I will be using my flannelgraph book on a regular basis. That said, if anyone wants to invent a flannelgraph/ fuzzy felt app…I’ll join the queue!

Richard Littledale

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