stephanie clark

Contentedly

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Communications is a specialty - even if it isn't treated as one

Good writing and effective communication are skills that are developed over years of work, through writing and rewriting, and learning to articulate ideas, thoughts and information. Because “communication” is such a broad term and everyone communicates in some form, some people see it not as an area of developed expertise but as a base skill that we all inherently have.

Write something? Yeah, no problem. Just yesterday I wrote 3 emails, a grocery list, AND 12 tweets about my political views!

Write a communications plan? Yeah, I can plan how we use words. I know tons of words, I use them all the time.

Come up with a marketing strategy? I mean… how hard can it be? Meh, I can always Google it and copy something from there.

There is a lack of appreciation for the more nuanced aspects of communications and writing that lead to, you guessed it, bad communications (and if you read on, you’ll see why that can be such a big deal).

You don't see that same logic applied to other professions.

I know my way around a kitchen and can keep myself fed, but I'd never call myself a chef. I certainly wouldn't say it in front of someone who has trained and worked as a chef. And I definitely wouldn't think I could run a kitchen for a restaurant of hungry patrons.

I know my way around HTML and can stumble through CSS and JavaScript, but I'd never call myself a developer. I wouldn't apply for a job in programming or development. And I definitely wouldn't think I could take over that kind of role from someone who specializes in it.

I couldn't do those things and no one would expect me to because we acknowledge them as specialties. A chef or developer would rightly be offended if I waltzed in and acted like a peer without putting the work in. If the organization or industry also saw us as peers, I’d probably feel my sense of value plummet.

No one ever wants to work hard to build a skill set only to feel like the general sentiment is that anyone could do it.

This isn’t unique to writing and communications, it happens in other creative areas too. How many of us have worked with someone with Microsoft Paint and a vision that fancies themselves a graphic designer? Clip art AND decorative fonts AND flames (why always flames?) - yes please! Or listened to people that can sort of carry a tune that think they're musicians? Or people with a set of paints that think their calling might just be in watercolours?

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Case in point: here is a drawing a did for my daughter. I was very carefully following the instructions of a “How to Draw” YouTube video (that I had to play multiple times).

It is a sheep.

It took me a really long time.

Back in my stand up days, I went to a lot of Open Mic nights and sat through hours of casually funny people finding out in real time it doesn't translate to the stage. Unlike professional writing, there's no hiding in stand up and you have a live audience to give immediate feedback on whether or not you did a good job. Most people think they’re funny and have to find out the hard way it’s another thing to think you can be funny professionally.

It taught me something about the way people see themselves that translated well back to my day job: most people also think they can write or communicate effectively but there's no audience to sit in awkward silence or heckle them off the stage.

Sigh. But how great would that be? To just loudly groan and boo after reading some lousy writing? Of course, that’s not appropriate so for now we must continue to do it silently in our heads. Like the professional adults we are.

Because everyone thinks they’re able to write and communicate well, it’s really hard to give anyone that feedback because it can be taken really personally. On the flip side, I couldn’t really take it personally if a chef told me my cooking wasn’t great or an artist said my drawing of a sheep gave them nightmares. While I was putting in the time to gain knowledge and experience in communications, they were building their own unique set of skills. It only makes sense that we turn to each other for support and appreciate the expertise we have in different areas.

A story: I was working as a marketing and communications coordinator on a small team. Because of recent mass layoffs, remaining employees and managers were shuffled around and some teams ended up with managers that didn’t actually have any experience in that area. Some managers were able to look to their teams and acknowledge that they didn’t have a particular skill set and ask for support. They made the effort to delegate tasks and, more importantly, decisions to people who knew more than they did.

Other managers went another way. By conflating a more senior role with more developed skills, they took on the decision making for areas in which they had no expertise and avoided feedback from staff who might know better. They felt threatened by employees that had more education and experience and would limit their opportunities for advancement and, in a few cases, have those people removed from their team entirely. The manager of my team dug out a marketing certificate from 25 years ago and thought it qualified her as an expert on digital comms and social media. Try as we might to advise that no, starting a social media channel for a 2 day event wasn’t a good idea or no, we can’t just auto-subscribe people to our newsletters, all feedback fell on deaf ears.

Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.
— Andy Stanley

The ending of this story is not surprising: employees that were looked to for their expertise and given responsibility and autonomy felt more valued, more trusted and more satisfied at work. Employees that weren’t supported or allowed to share their opinions or make decisions felt stifled, paranoid and unhappy. Many of the latter ended up leaving the organization. The end result was teams that were highly dysfunctional with frequent turnover and low morale (and dormant social media accounts).

In an organization where communication is not prioritized, meetings are inefficient and ineffective. Because little gets accomplished in them, more meetings get scheduled, so that every member of the team feels overbooked, under-informed and generally unhappy.
— Dean Brenner, Forbes Magazine

Seeing someone take on roles or tasks that are in your wheelhouse rather than looking to you - or as a manager finding those opportunities to empower you - is disheartening.

For writers and other communications professionals, let me be your cheerleader: what you do is important and is valuable.

There are good reasons to seek out and fairly compensate experienced, professional writers and communicators. One reason: bad writing could be costing you a lot of wasted time and money. In 2016, Josh Bernoff wrote in the Harvard Business Review that of 547 businesspeople that he surveyed, "81% of them agree that poorly written material wastes a lot of their time. A majority say that what they read is frequently ineffective because it’s too long, poorly organized, unclear, filled with jargon, and imprecise.” His entire post is fantastic, but the tenet that stood out to me most was this: “Fuzzy writing allows fuzzy thinking.”

In another article for The Daily Beast, Bernoff posits that the cost of bad writing (in the US), “consumes $396 billion of our national income”. That is an insane amount of money wasted on avoidable poor communications.

Rogers lost $2 million dollars because of a communication error - can you image? A misused comma costing millions of dollars?

Christopher McFadden of Interesting Engineering describes a disaster at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in 1981 that was due to, “design changes, poor communication, poor or no calculations and general negligence.” The disaster that claimed many lives was caused by “design changes [that] were confirmed over the phone rather than checking the documentation or calculations.”

Obviously these are extreme examples, but it drives home an important point: Good communication is critical for success on both an individual and organizational level.

For organizations and businesses:

  • Prioritize good writing and communications and then put your money where your mouth is; compensate communications professionals at a level that distinguishes it as a specialty to both attract and retain skilled writers and communicators.

  • Show you value their unique skill set by giving credit where it’s due, particularly where work is being done by one person but presented by another.

  • Let communicators communicate and writers write. Encourage managers to manage and to delegate tasks to the employee hired to perform that work.

  • Keep an eye on team dynamics and flag any issues where there is a lack of trust or decreasing morale and job satisfaction.

  • Give employees opportunities to grow and develop their communications and writing skills through courses and mentors.

To my communications comrades out there: I see you. You are uniquely skilled and the right employer will see it, value it, and compensate you for it. To you, here is my advice:

  • Seek out organizations that value communications and recognise it as a specialty. The nice thing about communications is you can see how they do it before you join - check out their website, social channels, job postings, etc. and see how they use them. Look at their team structure and see if there are comms people doing comms work.

  • Value yourself and your skills the way you want an employer and your colleagues to value you. Don’t let someone else’s ego get in your way.
    Don’t shy away from opportunities to demonstrate your skills and show your organization what you bring to the table and the positive impact good communications can have.

  • Ask for the work you want. If you see someone automatically taking on communications work that you are better suited for, say it (in a nice way). You might get shot down but you also might find others that welcome the help and didn’t know to come to you.

  • Don’t let someone attribute bad writing to you. I can’t tell you how often I’ve written something to have it changed to become less clear, filled with errors and inconsistent tone and had my name left on it. If you’re being credited, make sure you’re the last person that approves it. You have a right to protect your reputation.

There are plenty of valid reasons to see communications and writing for the unique skills they are. Organizations that fail to see that may think they are getting around hiring higher-salaried specialists by relegating that work to a list of “extra duties” for employees without the knowledge or experience to do it well. In the long-term, this is often a more costly approach. Not only can it cost them more in dollars, it can also cost them quality employees and have ripples across the entire organization. So remember:

It’s always cheaper to do the job right the first time.
— Phil Crosby