conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Posts Tagged ‘Writing for Community

Fear as a Communication Tool: Hearty and Cruel Visuals

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The Truth in Consequences


Today in class we talk about visuals and how to use them. Graphs, charts, line drawings, photographs—all the stuff we see every day in our media excursions. As a copywriter I am very fond of visuals: I love the way they succinctly tell the story I labor to explain with words.

But there is a genre of images we shy away from—images entirely out of sync with the pleasant, positive, climate-controlled and safe communication we aim for. These images follow the shock and awe tactics of the Brothers Grimm: show what happens when you don’t follow our rules. Things just may not turn out so well, Mister.


You don’t need to know Russian to see that you really should be careful around turning axles, backing train cars and the odd drill press. And it was not so long ago in our country that we showed our youngsters exactly what might happen with their lively hijinks.


But maybe we’ve gone too far with our de-linking of action and consequence. When writing copy I rarely name the negative side of things. Instead, I always build on the positive. Maybe we could all use a bit of that Russian backbone.

Not again!


Image Credit: Soviet Posters via Copyranter. Vintage safety manual via Retronaut.

Written by kirkistan

November 15, 2011 at 8:31 am

Extreme Listening in a Congregation: Framing a Question and Listening for the Reply

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and yet, sometimes it does work

Once upon a time a church had outgrown their facility and the leaders wanted to raise money to build. So they thought of a campaign and called it “Hearing from God.” In the campaign they asked members to pray about how they should give and then pledge toward the amount they heard. After several months of praying, along with weekly stories from the pulpit of people who prayed, heard and decided to give generously, the final day came when all the pledges were in. But the pledges did not cover the costs of the new building—not even close.

Did the “Hearing from God” campaign succeed as a marketing tool? Yes. The campaign focused congregational interest by tying growth plans with the expectation that this was God’s vision and God’s work. This tactic is nothing new to the human condition, whether we’re talking about starting a war, running for office, providing jet fuel for the pastor’s personal jet or gassing-up any other part of the church growth business The campaign worked exactly as planned: it helped elicit pledges from the congregation, pledges over and above typical giving.

Did the “Hearing from God” campaign succeed as a moment of corporate listening? No. And massively so. The congregation was asking “Should we?” while the leaders were asking “How much?” The end of the campaign revealed how different the two questions were, as leaders refused to revisit the what they actually heard from God. Instead they pushed the project forward, despite the seemingly obvious conclusions.

The multi-million dollar project moved ahead, but the twist on hearing and resultant lack of listening initiated a corrosive set of questions about leadership. Subsequent decisions about firing and hiring supported the growing congregational awareness that the entire church entity had been hijacked by a set of leaders pursuing private dreams. “Hearing from God” became a shorthand joke among the congregation for whatever current project leadership was pursuing. Over the course of the next two years, thirty-three to fifty percent of the long-term members leaked out the back door.

What does it cost to avoid hearing?


Image credit: x-planes

Written by kirkistan

November 5, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Verbatim: Tell Other People’s Stories

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In which I learn from my students

We see better together

We just finished our Social Media Marketing class at Northwestern College. One of my favorite assignments was when the students critique their own social media efforts: their Facebooking and Tweeting and especially their blogging. Each student established their own direction at the beginning of the class complete with written goals and objectives. All for the purpose of establishing a community in just a few short weeks.

Students learn great lessons. They learn about how details and minute specificity can help their work be found by search engines (that is, by people using search engines). There is always a moment of triumph when they get their first non-class participant. They learn that a number in a headline pulls in readers. They learn how commenting on other people’s work is another way of polite conversation that also helps expand their reach. Of course I am being reminded and learning afresh all the same things. My favorite learning this time:

“I began by writing about what interested me, but I’m learning to let my audience guide the topic choice by what they comment.”

This is a mature understanding. She went on:

“I’m realizing that this blog is not about what I know and can provide, but about what the community of writers can share with each other.”

Writing our commonality has a way of inviting others in. It is a way of telling a story together. We talked about “psychic income,” which we defined as the intrinsic reward we get from helping someone else and how that helps others participate to build the story and the community.

Her comment also speaks directly against the notion of a self-absorbed generation. Here’s a person learning to put the needs and interests of others ahead of her own. Not that she was any more self-focused than any of us: we’re all struggling to fathom how to set aside our personal, angsty issues to see what’s going on in others. Telling other people’s stories is precisely the beginning of drawing together a community.


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Do a Dumb Sketch Today

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Magnetize Eyeballs with Your Dumb Sketch

As a copywriter, I’ve always prefaced my art or design-related comments with, “I’m no designer, but….” I read a number of design blogs because the discipline fascinates me and I hope for a happy marriage between my words and their graphical setting as they set off into the world.

But artists and designers don’t own art. And I’m starting to wonder why I accede such authority to experts. Mind you, I’m no expert, but just like in the best, most engaged conversations, something sorta magical happens in a dumb sketch. Sometimes words shivering alone on a white page just don’t cut it. Especially when they gang up in dozens and scores and crowd onto a PowerPoint slide in an attempt to muscle their way into a client’s or colleague’s consciousness. Sometimes my words lack immediacy. Sometimes they don’t punch people in the gut like I want them to.

A dumb sketch can do what words cannot.

I’ve come to enjoy sketching lately. Not because I’m a good artist (I’m not). Not because I have a knack for capturing things on paper. I don’t. I like sketching for two reasons:

  1. Drawing a sketch uses an entirely different part of my brain. Or so it seems. The blank page with a pencil and an idea of a drawing is very different from a blank page and an idea soon to be fitted with a set of words. Sketching seems inherently more fun than writing (remember, I write for a living, so I’m completely in love with words, too). Sketching feels like playing. That sense of play has a way of working itself out—even for as bad an artist as I am. It’s that sense of play that brings along the second reason to sketch.
  2. Sketches are unparalleled communication tools. It’s true. Talking about a picture with someone is far more interesting than sitting and watching someone read a sentence. Which is boring. Even a very bad sketch, presented to a table of colleagues or clients, can make people laugh and so serve to lighten the mood. Even the worst sketches carry an emotional tinge. People love to see sketches. Even obstinate, ornery colleagues are drawn into the intent of the sketch, so much so that their minds begin filling in the blanks (without them realizing!) and so are drawn into what was supposed to happen with the drawing. The mind cannot help but fill in the blanks.

The best part of a dumb sketch is what happens when it is shown to a group. In a recent client meeting I pulled out my dumb sketches to make a particular point about how this product should be positioned in the market. I could not quite hear it, but I had the sense of a collective sigh around the conference table as they saw pictures rather than yet another wordy PowerPoint slide. In fact, contrary to the forced attention a wordy PowerPoint slide demands, my sketch pulled people in with a magnetism. Even though ugly, it still pulled. Amazing.


How Could this Book be More Interesting?

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I’m about to go fishing with my Listentalk book proposal (via How could I make the summary (below) more interesting? Be honest. People respond to these posts by email, on Facebook and occasionally right here at “Engage.” Vent your spleen. I’m listening.

Listentalk: How Simple Conversation Changes Your Life Every Day

Why does one conversation make you scan the room for escape while the next sends you breathless to register to run a marathon—though you hate exercise? Listentalk: How Simple Conversation Changes Your Life Every Day shows how humble, mundane conversations have the power to turn our life direction every single day, by:

  • Reminding us of the pivotal conversations that have shaped and sculpted our own lives. Like the chance comment to your 18-year-old-self from an acquaintance about a “school you should check out,” which sent you a direction that ended in law school, marriage and being appointed as a judge (true story).
  • Showing how God purposefully composed the human condition so that while we are limited, we are limited together. Conversation has a way of bumping out our human limitations in extraordinary ways, so that my lack of understanding leads to a discussion that sheds light on a key topic but also opens an opportunity to pursue the work I love.
  • Exposing the component parts of listening and talking so we can better understand how God speaks to and through us
  • Providing practical insights into how we can listen and speak for powerful good every single day—including wise use of social media

Today’s incendiary and vitriolic talk leaves people feeling weary and soiled. Listentalk refreshes Christian adults, Sunday School classes, small groups and college students by reminding them of the wonder, curiosity and serendipity that have been part of the deep verbal connections that have shaped their lives. These deep connections have often sprung from the unlikeliest of mundane conversations.

Listentalk tells stories of conversations that both suggest and model an extraordinary set of expectations and outcomes for ordinary talk. Listentalk helps people see verbal, visual and other-sensory conversational episodes as the powerful shaping tools they are—and provides suggestions for making them even more powerful. Unlike possibility-thinking, self-help books, Listentalk is grounded in the nature and actions of the conversing God of the Bible who expected and realized world-changing outcomes from each conversational episode. Listentalk frees readers to see daily conversation in a very different light by inviting readers to reach out in trust to each day’s conversational partners—an ever-expanding set of partners due to changing attitudes (about communication, authority and the loss of gatekeepers) and developing technologies.

Listentalk offers a primer on navigating the growing social media space as redeemed conversational partners. Creating communities of target audiences is the new marketing strategy. Leading public conversations by reaching out with dialogue that gifts and blesses is not only supremely Christian, but supremely strategic.


Listentalk Chapter 7 Synopsis: Where to Listentalk in this World?

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A simple conversation can turn more powerful than we could ever imagine.

Waking to a potent exchange, we understand intrinsically that much more than words are passing. We also exchange something of our identity. Rejuvenating, reforming and re-establishing, the power of a conversation starts to look like a useful tool. Useful, if slightly unpredictable because we converse with people, never objects. And people can choose to listen. Or not.

How to use this conversation-tool intentionally in the world?

Some people courageously allow themselves to be pulled forward into widening circles of conversation, starting from their own dialogical communities: family and faith communities, work communities, learning communities, social communities. But the opportunity for engaging in conversation grows: search-capabilities alone open new doors for intimate connection across the globe. With this widening opportunity comes a strategic question: who do I engage with in this world of opportunity and how will social media help? This chapter suggests responsibilities surround and invite our engagement—there are certain places and situations where listentalk must proceed forward. One is where voices are silenced. Those nations, organizations and situations where dissent is crushed and people (of faith and otherwise) are jailed, tortured and murdered. Listentalk can hear the voice of the voiceless and amplify the cry of the helpless. In response to the God who gave us voices, we must speak. In education, where students are provided with knowledge, life-skills and trained to make a difference. Simple conversation is and must grow more into a concomitant discipline in philosophy, English, engineering, in business. Business is ripe and already beginning to flower with the fruit of listentalk (maybe it is as much generational as it is thoughtful strategy), but all disciplines benefit from intentional openness. Finally, the church is the people among who listentalk should flourish. The church with its focus on hearing from God’s word and from the conversations that have surrounded this hearing for centuries. The church with its epic mission. The people committed to formation must themselves form in a way that honors God’s pattern. And perhaps the community of faith has the most at stake with dialogue: the mission is nothing less than drawing others into response to and relationship with God, which the apostle Paul wrote about persuasively in 2 Corinthians 5.


Written by kirkistan

November 25, 2010 at 9:52 am

Listentalk Chapter 3 Synopsis: Building Communities with Words

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Words Can Accomplish Stuff Among Us

We spend ourselves in word-formation without giving it a second thought. Producing and delivering words is our daily task. Words are the currency of our social capital, and we cash them in on paper, orally and electronically. And yet even as we spend our words to persuade or motivate someone to action or even command (perhaps depending on the context of hierarchy to provide the whip missing from our voice), we sometimes bank up even more social capital. Words are the giving that keeps giving—sometimes for good. Sometimes for ill.

Our words can be deposits in a community-wide bank as we annotate a context that helps a group self-identify, clarify tasks and purposes and simply move forward. Our words can pinpoint the human condition in a way that names a common problem or promise and so frees others to tackle it. Our words often fly out in camouflage simply because they blend in so well with all the other words flying through the air.

The opportunity to let our words fly is changing on a monumental scale because of technology and because of new attitudes of who, what and how to hear from each other. The opportunity has opened a wide new vista for forming community. But this is no time to hold back. No. It is time to jump in.


Written by kirkistan

November 21, 2010 at 7:48 am

Write news based only on Facebook and Twitter?

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In our “Writing for Community” class yesterday we discussed the difference between blogging and journalism. It’s getting harder draw a firm line between who is doing what, but the code of ethics about fact-finding and fact-checking remain key differentiators.

Stan Schroeder at Mashable offers the story of five French journalists who lock themselves in a farmhouse in France for five days and “write news based only on what they read in Twitter and Facebook.”

The success of their news gathering and sifting for facts will require great ingenuity. But I’m reminded of Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monk whose influential writings about current events were based largely on letters he received rather than rapt attention to media.


Passion is the Preferred Communication Tool

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"Hair cut? Meet you in your parking lot in 15."

"Haircut, please." "Meet me in your lot in 15."

Clay Shirky, writing in “Here Comes Everybody,” argues effectively that with the lower transaction costs for forming groups (caused by social media), there are more possibilities than ever to pull a group together for most any reason. Dan Pink wrote yesterday of a social media-driven mobile hair-cuttery he saw at Google headquarters. Whether your focus is major profits, minor prophets or mingling in Provence, there are all sorts of new opportunities for banding together around a passion. All it takes is strategic use of the tools freely available, plus the willingness to reach out.

I’m asking my Writing for Community class to brainstorm the contours of the opportunity before them as they seek to build communities. With a passionate leader encouraging group sharing, what sorts of things are possible? We’re already seeing examples every day, from the high-schooler who tried to get released from being grounded by amassing thousands of fans on her Facebook page (her parents remained unimpressed) to the seemingly spontaneous “I’m with Coco” protests.

Depth of passion may well be the limiting factor. Just what am I willing to do to make my point? How far out will I reach?


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