Three Little Generation Y Pigs

Once upon a time there were three little pigs, called Pig, Bud and Coz. Sociologists considered them Generation-Y pigs, born after 1982, and these pigs understood their lives through the lens of a happy midi-narrative.

They didn’t believe in meta-narratives (like the Enlightenment’s story of progress or the Christian story of redemption), but they did aspire to be happy, and their lives drew on popular culture and were meaningfully constructed around relationships with friends and family.

Coz was Pig’s cousin and, given they couldn’t afford to get on the property ladder in the foreseeable future, they lived together in a house owned by Pig’s uncle. Pig’s best mate, Bud, lived next door.

One early Sunday morning Pig, Bud and Coz were walking home after a night on the town.  Pig’s head was full of the images and sounds of clubbing, and he was smiling. ‘Life is great! I’m with my friends, don’t have to go to work today, and I’m happy!’ The transient goal of the ‘happy midi-narrative’ had been achieved.

But then he heard the clatter of an overturned recycling bin at the far end of the empty high street, and turned round. ‘What was that?’ Coz peered into the distance, past Lloyds TSB and the Pound Shop, and saw a shadow moving. ‘What is that?’ Under the glow of the street-light, and framed against H Samuel’s security grill, the gaunt form of an enormous Wolf appeared, running fast towards them.

Flinging their half-empty bottles of Stella, Pig, Bud and Coz sprinted in the opposite direction. ‘Let’s go to mine’ gasped Coz, extracting his house keys as they ran. They could hear the Wolf’s paws thudding on the pavement eighty yards behind them, and they dashed into their home street, reached the house, scrambled open the front door and collapsed inside.

Peering out through the letterbox, Coz was sickened to see the sharp bared teeth of the wolf. A voice, breathy and low, snarled; ‘little pigs, little pigs, let me in’. Pig and Coz looked at each other in alarm. ‘No by the hairs on our chinny chin chin’! ‘Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in’!

This was not good news. Coz’s dad managed a construction company that specialized in renewable and locally sourced building material, and ‘The Straw House’ was held up as a model of sustainable living. It was not held up by much else.  Wolf blew, a chaos of dust, straw and garden twine erupted around them, and the three little pigs scrambled in terror out into the vegetable garden. ‘Quick’, gasped Bud, ‘let’s get into mine’!

Having slammed the Scandinavian pine door securely behind them, dusting the straw off their clothes, the Pigs then faced the horror of the Wolf’s face pressed up against the window. ‘Little pigs, little pigs, let me in!’ This time Bud roared back: ‘no by the hairs on my chinny chin chin!’ Silence. ‘Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in!’

Bud’s house was a more solid structure, made mainly from furniture off-cuts from the IKEA factory where his Dad worked.  But given their recent experience of ‘Tornado breath’, the pigs weren’t that hopeful.  ‘We can’t hide, nor can we run’, gasped Bud, ‘so we’d better fight. The three of us should be able to take this Wolf!

Armed with their less accurate pool cues, the Three Little Pigs burst out into the street, yelling (squealing) fiercely.  But neither their pool cues nor their numbers were of any help. This was a Wolf and they were three little pigs.  In a matter of moments the cues were smashed and the bruised and bleeding pigs were cowering on the ground. The Wolf towered over them, licking his chops.

As the imminent prospect of a gruesome death flashed through their minds, the pigs were surprised to hear their neighbour’s door swing open. Despite the local intrusion of IKEA, the Carpenter’s boutique furniture business had flourished, enabling him to buy the large red-brick house adjacent to the Pigs.  Awakened by the commotion next door, he had grabbed an axe and emerged in his pyjamas to join the fray.

The Wolf, seeing the real enemy, turned from the whimpering pigs and launched itself. Knocking the Carpenter down and sending the axe spinning, the Wolf’s claws pinned his hands to the ground and with sharp teeth tore into his side.  Stopping to leer at the pigs, the Wolf failed to notice the Carpenter stretch, clasp the axe handle and swing it around.

The axe head thudded into the Wolf’s neck, sending it writhing. One more whack did the job. The pigs meanwhile, shaky from shock and blood-loss, scrambled to their feet and, smiling awkwardly at their neighbour who they had previously ignored, muttered garbled words of thanks.

Come in, and let’s clean up these wounds”, wheezed the bleeding Carpenter, and the wobbly pigs followed him inside, admiring the solid brick work and dark wood interior design. After putting plasters on the pigs’ scratches and wrapping bandages around his own side and feet, the Carpenter showed them the top-floor maisonette that he kept free for guests.  They had no homes left to go to.

The next day Coz and Bud informed their dads about the fates of their respective properties, and explained how they decided to stay with the Carpenter for the indefinite future. The two dads got together and developed the vacant plots into a show room for new solar panel systems. Then one day the Carpenter surprised all the pigs by offering them shared equity in his own home, and they quickly signed. And they lived happily ever after. The end.

And what was all that about???? 

Slacklining Together

I was feeling flabby this evening so I went for a run.  Puffing through the park, I noticed that a couple of teenagers had tied a rope between two trees, suspended a few feet above the ground.  I then saw one of them run, jump, land on the rope and balance precariously. He edged forward a few paces, and then fell off. His buddy then ran, jumped, landed, walked a bit further and fell off. The first guy had another go.  It turns out this is called ‘slacklining’.

From skateboarders in Exeter, break-dancers in Warsaw or footballistas in Milan I’ve always been impressed by the teenagers who practice for hours. They take risks, make mistakes, fall over, get up, advise, share ideas and get impressively good. My dad used to thrash me at table-football (that was the only corporate punishment in our house) and, after another blurry ball was flicked between strikers and whacked into my goal, he admitted it was ‘the sign of a wasted youth’.

Risk-taking, mistake-making, bone-breaking (?) but exhilarating. That’s how we get good at anything exciting. And the ‘slackliners’ or skaters do it together. 

How about us? What’s the lesson for those who want to tune into the Word, listen to the World, process what’s heard in humbled grateful Gospel-hearts (see previous ‘Ideal’ article) and then speak? How do slackliners and skaters inspire us to action today, ensuring excellence tomorrow? Here are three questions we might consider.

  • Do skateboarders practice in their bedrooms? Maybe, but they’re only going to get good when they get together at the park. Given that we’ll be heard in real time by fresh ears, practicing in our bedrooms is nowhere near as useful as getting heard by a discerning friend. If this adds such value, could you add this to your preparation?
  • Where are the ‘skateparks’ for preachers / persuasive evangelists? I’m not saying that the forty-year-olds hand over their pulpits to fourteen year olds, but let’s give them an opportunity to take risks, practice and learn together. The Oxford students who meet with me once a week to develop persuasive evangelistic talks deliver them in their colleges and local schools. It’s fun! We take risks, laugh together, improve and I’m thrilled to be listening to the future. Is this kind of group something you could do?
  • Who is your slack-lining buddy? I’m currently very blessed to have Dave McNee as my Relay worker and we’re endlessly revising and refining each other’s talks. From discussing starting points over coffee to revising the final version in the car, we find that a second pair of ears makes all the difference. A public talk isn’t a private occasion, so why should the preparation for it be? Who could you team up with?

If you want to mentor or be mentored by someone in the UCCF’s national Christian Persuader network then do get in touch.

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The Ideal Christian Speaker?

 

Had I become a priest, the sermons would’ve been electric! (Johnny Vegas) 

Here’s my three-part paradigm for The Ideal Christian Speaker.

I’m willing to bet that any preacher or evangelist that you’ve found particularly helpful has shown all three.

Nor would I be surprised if any talk you’ve found frustrating has betrayed a lack of one or more of these three:

  • tuned ears 
  • trained tongues
  • transformed hearts

Cheesy but profound. Well, cheesy at least. But are these three exactly?

1. The Ideal Christian Speaker has tuned ears. Their left ear is carefully ‘tuned in to the Word’, discerning what the Spirit is saying through the Scriptures, while their right ear is carefully ‘tuned in to the World’, identifying the prevalent idols and the ascendant strongholds (secular or religious) that set themselves up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:4-5). Without John Stott’s ‘double listening’ we’ll be either deaf to God or dumb to the wider world.

2. The Ideal Christian Speaker has a trained tongue. What a shame if, having heard from God and having drawn near to our hearers, we’re so sloppy that people fail to hear us. God may have chosen to speak through Balaam’s donkey, but that’s no excuse for us braying. Mr Ideal builds on Biblical precedents, draws from the ‘city of homiletical wisdom’, and ‘spoils the Egyptians’ for insights into effective communication. They work hard, so their audience doesn’t have to.

But there’s a great danger if we only ‘tune our ears and train our tongues’.

I can be perfectly Orthodox (as is Satan), diligently search the Scriptures, and build a church of Pharisees.

I can be a culturally-savvy cutting-edge communicator and leave people clinging to their idols.

But what can Satan, Pharisees and Idolaters never say? Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst (1 Timothy 1:5).

3. The Ideal Christian Speaker has a transformed heart. Unless the Gospel of Christ Jesus transforms our hearts, turning idolaters into true worshippers and self-justifying Pharisees into Christ-justifying Christians, then we’ll do more damage than good. It is the transformed heart that interprets what the tuned ears hear. It is out of the transformed heart that the trained tongue speaks.

I fall short on all three accounts. I’m a lazy listener, sloppy speaker and often delight more in alliteration than erm… amazing grace.

But I find this ideal provides a helpful structure for preparation, praying and providing feedback for others. I ask:

  • Have I really listened? What exactly have I heard? Where did I hear that?
  • Have I worked hard in preparation to ensure that I’m crystal clear and movingly vivid, or do I lazily let my hearers do the hard work during the event itself?
  • Does my tone and the direction of my talk move us all to a humble joy in Christ, or in something else (my performance, wisdom, answers etc)?
But how do we learn to listen, speak and repent?
———–

We all have days where we can’t pronounce things or give it the emotion it deserves. 
Johnny Vegas

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If Chris Ashton Gave A Lunchbar

With only three minutes left on the clock, Toby Flood threw a fine miss-pass to Chris Ashton, who dived over to score the try that ended Scotland’s hopes of progressing to the knock-out stages of the Rugby World Cup.

Despite a weak performance, England finished strongly. For many lunchbar speakers however, especially me, the opposite is often the case; a strong performance can finish weakly. Why? Let me suggest two causes, and three solutions.

Two Causes

1.  My Tail Is Less Evolved! My talks evolve. I write furiously for about an hour, then stop. After a break, I return and develop what’s written, starting from the top, again and again until i’m satisfied. The vocal rehearsal process follows the same pattern, evolving the animal further, until I can deliver it fully without any notes.

But here’s the problem. The evolutionary process, both writing and rehearsing, starts with the head every time. This is the way I work, but also represents my misplaced preference for a dynamic start (‘please like me and listen!’) over a dynamic finish. The result is always less energy and time spent on the tail of the talk, which consequently is less evolved and weaker.

2. Relax, We’re Nearly Home.  Driving down unfamiliar roads is much more mentally demanding than a familiar local route.  That’s why most road accidents happen within a mile of our homes; we relax and switch off. The same can be true for Lunchbar speaking.

The speaker will spend hours ‘driving around unfamiliar roads’ (researching and writing) as they articulate the objection in the Lunchbar title, identify with their audience, deconstruct the objection and build a strong apologetic for the Gospel.

However there’s often a point when the talk turns from the unfamiliar apologetic to a more familiar Gospel summary. The speaker relaxes (in preparation, if not delivery), because they feel they ‘know the road’ and are ‘nearly home’.  Christian ‘in house’ phrases roll out, the tone slides from personable to ‘parsonic’ and the talk crashes into a confusion of furrowed brows and glazed eyes.

What’s The Solution?

1.  Let’s Evolve Together. If you have the chance to test out your talk (script, or much better, live) with friends or colleagues, they’ll be in a good position to see which are the stronger and weaker limbs. Ask them to look closely at your tail.

2.  Your Home Looks Strange To Strangers. While the speaker may feel most at home with the Gospel (beware domestication…) to those with little experience of Christian things, this is the part of the talk where they feel furthest from home.  Let’s work hard to be hospitable! 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

3. Picture The Try Line. Ok, so this may only appeal to Rugby types, but imagine the joy of energetically diving across the try line to victory. Don’t you want your talks to finish with that kind of commitment and enthusiasm? What is your major insight, and how does that change how we think, feel and act? Fix your eyes on that throughout your writing, rehearsing and praying, and you’ll make it!

If Chris Ashton gave a Lunchbar, that’s what he would do.

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Brigstocke & Two Smoking Barrels

Marcus Brigstocke was my favourite R4 comedian when playing ‘Giles Wemmbley-Hogg’. This year he published ‘God Collar’, to accompany his stand up tour of the same name. I bought it in Liverpool train station and spent the journey to Oxford either giggling or squirming. He shoots at lots of people, but none more persistently than Richard Dawkins. Here’s a few quotes…

“Well, I was an atheist when I started reading The God Delusion; by the time I’d finished it I was an agnostic. I was going to read it again but I worried I might turn into a fundamentalist Christian”.

“Even if you agree with most of what is written in The God Delusion, you find yourself having to rinse great dollops of smugness off your hands when you put the book down”.

“For some reason, though, when I try to recall what I actually read in the book, I hear Richard Dawkins’s thin voice saying, ‘When I woke up this morning, I realized I was cleverer and better than anyone else I’d ever met in my entire life. So there didn’t seem to be any point being nice or polite to anybody. Just insist and insist and insist and insist that I was absolutely correct. Earlier I saw myself in the mirror and I thought, ooh, he looks clever, but not as clever as I am. Me me me me me…”

Who’s sniggering??? I’m not advocating Ad Hominem arguments, but felt I should balance Jeremy Paxman’s reverential interview / publishers promotion the other night…

God Talks Like A Neuroscientist

This is embarrassing, and probably inappropriate. Though I’ve spoken at lots of student events in various places on various topics to various groups over the last four years, the people who engage (and talk to me afterwards) have been disproportionately girls.

Should I admit that? Not sciency blokes, not sporty blokes, but rather stylish and artsy girls. Why? Don’t answer. But take it as a silly illustration to raise an important question: what affects effective communication? In this short article I’d like to draw on the Bible, pop neuroscience, and a bit of history to help us speak effectively to all.

Apparently the brain’s left and right hemispheres process differently. The ‘Left’ specializes in logic, sequence and abstract categories, while the ‘Right’ specializes in emotion, intuition, and holistic perception.

Imagine the ‘Left’ in a library writing essays, while the ‘Right’ snuggles up to watch a film.

Our ‘cognitive preferences’ develop as we develop. Was your childhood dominated by books or by Bambi, text or picture? Are we wordy? Or image conscious?

Our childhoods are part of a longer story.  Gutenberg’s printing press and the explosion of literacy put the Western ‘Left Brain’ on steroids (and we sat down in The Age of Reason and penned a scholarly treatise). Then along comes Disney (photos, film, the Internet etc) and the ‘Right Brain’ gets fired up, spending many a happy hour flicking through snaps on Facebook.

Let’s observe a parallel shift in evangelicalism. In his translation of the New Testament (lots of words!), ‘Lefty’ Luther claims that John’s Gospel and Paul’s epistles surpass the Synoptic Gospels, as the former offer explicit (abstract) doctrines about Jesus rather than the latter merely telling the (concrete, visual) story of Jesus.

But modern evangelicals don’t wear bracelets with ‘What Would Jesus Believe’ and many prefer preaching with ‘more application’.

We’re reflecting a cultural trend recently articulated in a BBC article written by Straw Dogs philosopher John Gray. Gray insists that ‘too many atheists miss the point of religion, it’s about how we live and not what we believe’. He tells the story of Graham Greene who converted to Catholicism not because of ‘those unconvincing philosophical arguments’, but because of the inexplicable goodness of the large and fat Father Trollope.

Given this increasing preference for the concrete and ethical over the abstract and doctrinal, how should we now live / think?

Should we follow Paul’s principle in 1 Corinthians 9 and ‘make ourselves slaves to Right Hemisphere processing to win as many as possible’?

But what about the warning in 2 Timothy 4 about those who reject sound doctrine and seek teachers to tell them what their itching want to hear? What Would Jesus Do?

And the Word became Flesh… and dwelt among us (John 1:14)

Given our Creator knows exactly how our brains work, he spoke supremely by his Son (Hebrews 1:2). God talks like a neuroscientist.

To adapt the Marshal McLuhan motto: Jesus is the medium and the message. We look at Jesus and understand Grace and Truth. Jesus is the climax of God’s Biblical self-communication through word and deed (interpreted action).

Furthermore, Jesus spoke in both abstract categories (‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ John 14:6) and concrete images (‘like a mustard seed’ Luke 13:19).

How about us who ‘believe in Christ’ (Leftish) and ‘follow Christ’ (Rightish)?

1. Like Jesus, we are the medium and the message. We are his body. Frank Luntz wrote a book called ‘it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear’ but the reality is that both come from who you are. People will see Christ in us to the extent that we let Him in, and let people see it. So be honest, vulnerable and show the concrete difference he is making in your life.

2. Like Jesus, we can speak both abstractly and concretely. We’ll naturally prefer one or the other, so how can we ensure we speak to both sides of the brain? A communication consultant friend of mine fills his presentations with FOAM (Facts, Opinions, Anecdotes and Metaphors), as facts and authoritative opinions speak to the Left, while the anecdotes (stories) and metaphors speak to the Right.

3. Like Jesus, we must ‘dwell among’ those who need to hear.  The fact that I spent many years of my life hanging out with artsy girls has left its scars.  Just as we grow up unconsciously learning our parents’ accent (apart from my parents who don’t have one), we inevitably learn the language of those we’re always around.

Sure, this raises more questions than it answers, but surely this post is already long enough?!

What Can We Learn From A Singing Footballer?

What Can We Learn From A Singing Footballer?

Graham Daniels (above) began his message at FORUM by telling the story of Dennis Bailey. Dennis was a striker for QPR in the 1980s who scored a hat-trick against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Let’s just pause and enjoy that fact for a moment. Ah.

Anyway, the story goes that QPR’s Chairman hosted the directors, partners and players for a black-tie Christmas dinner, and during the post-dinner speeches something unexpected happened. Dennis Bailey, the youngest member of the squad, felt prompted to raise his hand and ask the Chairman for the opportunity to say something about the meaning of Christmas.

The Chairman obliged, asking Dennis what he had in mind, and the shy seventeen year old stood up, to stutteringly announce: “I’m not very good at speaking Mr Chairman, but I know a song”. “Well that’s not very helpful”, said the Chairman, but Dennis pleaded: “can I sing a bit of it?” (And Graham Daniels – or ‘Danno’ – sang the first chorus):

Thank you Jesus… Thank you Jesus… Thank You Lord… For Loving Me…

You went to Calvary… And There You Died… For… Me…

Of course this brought the house down, Dennis faced mockery in the changing rooms ever afterwards, but one of his team mates was sufficiently intrigued by this inexplicable lunacy that he ultimately became a Christian!

This set up Danno’s message, challenging UK student leaders to talk about Jesus in similar places of vulnerability, and he referenced the story throughout, before closing with another moving rendition of the chorus.

So What Can We Learn From A Singing Footballer?

I would suggest this opening story is GENIUS for three reasons.

First, it sticks. Not only is it simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, in story form (see memorable messages), but it has a catchy tune! The stickiness means the message sticks with it, and can be retold by bloggers and other fine folk. But this is just the beginning.

Second, it integrates. By referring back to the story throughout, and even closing with a poignant repeat of the chorus, the whole talk is given a beautiful unity. And by singing while being an ex-professional footballer himself, he offers the nerdy talk buffs a pleasing second level of illustrative meaning. But being ‘sticky’ and ‘integrating’ the talk are only useful to the extent they serve this third value.

Third, it IS the goal of the talk. What do I mean? Well, what did Danno pray his student audience would do when back on campus? He longed they would be similarly courageous in confessing Christ from a place of vulnerability. So how did he make that goal more tangible and achievable? He enabled us to visualise it. The story IS the goal of the talk.

What Can We Learn From A Singing Footballer?

Help your audience to visualise what the application of your talk would look like in real life, build your talk around that, and make it memorable.

Danno’s talk is almost as good as scoring a hat-trick against Man United at Old Trafford. Ah, those were the days..

NOTE: Danno did qualify the story by saying he didn’t want us to be ‘NUTTERS’ (in a strong welsh accent), but an extreme example can make the point more memorable.

The War Is Over! What War? (Science Vs Religion)

Science Vs Religion?

If you ask many people today what they think about science’s relationship to religion, you are likely to be told that the two have been in conflict for a very long time.

There was the trial of Galileo by the Inquisition, for example, the debate between Wilberforce and Huxley, and there is still an on-going dispute over the teaching of evolution in American schools.

These usual suspects may be trotted out whenever this topic is mentioned, but are events such as these really typical of the history of science as a whole?

Contrary to the impression given by some commentators, the conflict thesis between science and religion is one that has been discredited in academic circles for some time.

Oh really? Give me some examples!

Why not read RZIM’s Simon Wenham’s excellent piece on this. His intro is very similar to mine. Spooky!

Testing Your Tone (By Breaking Into Song)

(with written permission from http://www.emilygphotography.com/blog/)

If Logos (our words) and Pathos (our emotional tone) sang a duet, who would have the louder voice? I’d suggest the latter, that what we say is drowned out by the way that we say it. Tone is important, but how can I ‘test my tone’, ensuring it harmonizes with what I want to say?

Amaaaaaaazing Grace….

How sweeeeeeeet the sound….

That saaaaaved a wretch…

Like me…….!

If I broke into a chorus of Amazing Grace at the end of my lunchbar talk, would those opening four lines sweetly harmonize with my tone throughout my talk?

1. Is Grace Amazing? I’ve sometimes summarized the Gospel in such a perfunctory way that my words marched forwards with heads down like the drab figures of a Lowry painting (right). 

We can make the Gospel sound like Maths (apologies Mathmos). It happens when the Gospel has become boring to the ‘Gospeller’. We can’t commend what we don’t cherish. Can we taste the sweetness?

2. Are We Wretches? I’ve given talks where I’ve smiled inwardly at the thought that I’m better educated than my audience, and my words marched forwards with heads held high like some parade of the Hitler Youth.

We can make Grace sound like Judgement. It happens when the Gospeller really feels justified by their knowledge or their performance. ‘I’m not a wretch! I’m well read, and better than a lot of the speakers you’ll hear! I’m here to enlighten you, to rescue you!

Wrong! We are wretches, not rescuers. But that’s OK.

The Lord said to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Corinthians 12:8-9)

Let’s test our tone by breaking into song. All together now… ‘Amazing Grace…’

The Rhetoric of Rain

It’s 7am, and I pull back the curtains in Lydia’s nursery.  The sun pours in, and a beautiful blue sky sits above the allotments opposite our house. ‘Good news for our BBQ this evening’, I say to Jane, as she unpops Lydia from her sleep suit.

But by 11am, in traditional British fashion, dark grey clouds smother our enthusiasm and it starts to rain. ‘There’s no way I can take Lydia out for her walk in this, and should we cancel this evening’?

‘I’ll have a look at the more detailed weather forecast and see if there’s any hope’.

At 4pm I smile as a strong westerly wind chases the clouds towards the horizon and a blue expanse spreads across the sky. ‘It’s going to be ok! I’ll be off to the butchers…

Why write this pedestrian description of a weather-dependent day in the BH household?

Let me recommend the ‘rhetoric of rain’ as a structure for your lunchbar talk. ‘Sun – rain – sun‘. Or ‘hope – problem dashes hope – problem solved and hope restored

Most lunchbar talks seek to overcome an objection to the Christian faith, yet I’ve noticed that some speakers fail to engage and move their audience because they fail to make us feel that the objection really is a problem for us.

‘So what if science has buried God’? Who cares? It’s no skin off my nose. Unless I’m first hoping for an evening BBQ, I’m not that bothered about the rain.

But if you begin by letting the sunshine of the Gospel warm my imagination, as I begin to see how wonderful it might be to know I’m created for a reason, that I’m loved despite my failings, that there’s real hope of a life with God now and always….

… then I’m going to curse the rain (‘ah, but it can’t be true because…’) for dampening all my hopes… and fully engage with the argument that might blow those clouds away (yet this objection doesn’t stand; it is true – good news!)…

This post is one of the ‘essential articles’ from bespeaking.org’s ‘effective communication’ menu