Not all things in the digital age happen instantaneously, sometimes things don’t just happen as planned! I saw the chapter ‘A web of words’ in Richard Littledale’s book ‘Who Needs Words’ last summer before it went off to publication, and was really looking forward to reading the whole book… A month off sick, and then the academic year swung back into action, and it was this summer before I managed the whole book, so here’s some thoughts about the book.It’s a book in which I think all types of communicators (all of us) could take something from, as it opens up enquiry as to how communication works, rather than offering a step by step guide, which would have been out of date if a year had passed!
A topic that has arisen several times at media literacy training is the question of ‘understanding your audience’. Littledale spends time focusing upon this (p30) “the message received must make enough sense in that world for the listener to accept it and to invest time in processing it.” In a digital age, where we’re all used to being active participants, he encourages us to “slow down, talk less and listen more” as good listeners make better communicators. There’s a difference between the words said, and the words heard… and Littledale emphasises the creativity required to see beyond words, and think creatively about how we communicate with others.
Words are central to our experience as human beings, and words are what God used to speak the world into existence. Can we use words well to communicate with God? Littledale uses a mix of theology and practice as he engages with these questions – thinking about how we interact with the world – the beautiful and the ugly sides of it: “We should never be so afraid of saying the wrong thing that we say nothing.” Word meanings continue to change, drawing upon our culture, and our past experiences, he warns us to use them with but do use them, without retreating behind a barrier of inpenetrable terminology.
Although we have much to learn from modern day communicators, we need to think beyond what is already possible. Those communicators tend to prize clarity over creativity, seeing ambiguity as a dangerous enemy, but this can be a space for the most powerful stuff. Littledale encourages us to remember that there’s no right way to do things, and to take time to dream, ponder and sketch out new ideas even if they are not fully complete… otherwise we repeat the same old stuff, and don’t allow space for different viewpoints to find houseroom together. He emphasises that if people have had to construct a story in their imaginations, they are more likely to remember the overall message for longer. This chimes with what Fougasse, a Second World War propaganda poster artist, believed. He used to ensure that his message made sense from a distance, but that there was something puzzling that didn’t make sense til you came closer.
Littledale covers a huge range of communications strategies, and deals effectively with many of the fears that we feel when called to express our opinions. On p121 he notes “People rarely speak up about your successes especially when you’re a communicator”, and we may note this on blogs – we tend only to comment on those we disagree violently with, whereas I would encourage us to look for more opportunities to encourage others. As Littledale identifies, when others ask you questions (however difficult they may be), it’s a real sign that you have engaged people with what you’re writing.
With a particular interest in the digital, we turn our attention to Littledale’s chapter on that, as he demonstrates how the digital has built on years of cultural behaviour. In looking at social media, he focuses upon the human connections, and calls for us to be sociable, honest, and authentic, as we develop an understanding of how the digital changes both ourselves, and the questions that others may ask us online. Previously we viewed the world through the filter of broadcast journalism, which has now changed to a digital filter. We need to think how that changes what we need to do to engage, but wishing for things ‘as they were’ is not helpful. We have to engage with the world as it is, seeking the positive, whilst being aware of how the message might be changed by its medium.
I particularly love Littledale’s recommendation of ‘learning sets’ (p135), where he recommends that communicators from a range of fields (preachers, teachers, journalists, etc.) meet together to “air their frustrations and triumphs about how their communication is going”, and then return to their “‘native habitat’ stimulated by the surprising insights of others,” as I hope that this is some of what The Big Bible Project can give space for.
So, to summarise, Richard Littledale, an accomplished wordsmith, emphasises the power of words, the power of stories, and the unique story that we all have (there is no ‘right’ way). We are encouraged to dream, not to get stuck in the same old rut, and to embrace creativity. The book offers a solid overview of the current state of the fast-moving online world, emphasising that whatever the technology, we are human beings who need to understand our own culture, and engage with it as honest, authentic sociable beings… understanding what we are naturally gifted to engage with.
Key takeaway points: Listen, engage, dare to dream, and learn from history!
Have you read this book? What did you take away from it? Would you recommend it to others? Are you going to buy it?
Dr Bex Lewis is passionate about helping people engage with the digital world in a positive way, where she has more than 20 years’ experience. She is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Visiting Research Fellow at St John’s College, Durham University, with a particular interest in digital culture, persuasion and attitudinal change, especially how this affects the third sector, including faith organisations, and, after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, has started to research social media and cancer. Trained as a mass communications historian, she has written the original history of the poster Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster (Imperial War Museum, 2017), drawing upon her PhD research. She is Director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst (Lion Hudson, 2014; second edition in process) as well as a number of book chapters, and regularly judges digital awards. She has a strong media presence, with her expertise featured in a wide range of publications and programmes, including national, international and specialist TV, radio and press, and can be found all over social media, typically as @drbexl.