Career in Communications
In his farewell address on
60 Minutes Andy Rooney said,
“A writer’s job is to tell to the truth.”
As a business communicator, I’ve learned that the best business and creative ideas often come from the truth. Identifying the root of any issue leads to more sustainable ideas. These are moments of truth for any business, and they create a foundation for growth.
Love what you do
I love communication, the psychology behind it and the business goals wrapped up in it. Long ago, I witnessed similar fervor in my college physics professor who emphatically claimed that physics was as beautiful as music.
Although communication isn’t musical, it is intriguing. The way we communicate defines every interaction we will ever have. That’s big. Even physics, with the likes of Isaac Newton and gravity cannot claim such a fundamental role in our relationships.
In business, politics, and much of life communication defines perception, which is far too often indistinguishable from reality. As a result, organizations and political campaigns are full of people scurrying about and asking, “What’s the message?” If they only knew that trust is largely established through non-verbal communication, they might choose to spend their energy on other pursuits.
Insights and introverts
As an introvert, I often talk to myself. So much so, that I sometimes forget to tell people what I’ve been thinking. It feels redundant actually. Didn’t we already have that conversation? No, you say? Oops, there I go again.
Introverts, however, observe some things others don’t. On the one hand, introverts are keenly aware of how much time people spend talking, and how little time is spent intently listening. On the other hand, introverts know that silence is not their friend either because silence breeds mistrust. That’s where the paradox of communication begins: Why can’t we just tell people to trust us?
Talking with your hands
When you grow up outside of Manhattan, talking with your hands is just talking. It’s your inner Italian speaking. But when you’re high in the mountains of Nepal trying to ask for some tea, those hands serve a more essential purpose.
Over the years, I’ve lived on three continents and traveled to many countries where my hands had to do the talking. Eye contact, patience, and a display of earnestness garner more trust than the largest vocabulary. Make a genuine effort to understand, and more often than not, people respond with kindness. Stephen Covey said that to communicate we must first understand and then seek to be understood. In my travels, that defines the language of the world.
Significant moments in my career
I suppose it all started with a high school journalism class. Then, a sharp left turn after college (when I returned from teaching in Thailand) led me to film school at NYU. Eventually, I found my way to the web and increasingly, business communication. Through all those years of typing, videotaping, editing words, editing video, planning websites, managing magazines, and managing clients, I have had some tremendous experiences. These are a few of them:
- Editor-in-Chief of my college’s newspaper, a role I reluctantly accepted when the outgoing Editor cornered me in the computer lab and said I had to take the job. (It was a small, all-women’s Catholic college, without a lot of “news” to report.)
- NYU Film School, Certificate Program. Lights. Camera. Permit? Upon completion, I asked a friend how to get my first job in the business. We were at a coffee shop in pre-Starbucks SOHO. “Ask a hundred production companies for a job,” he said. “You’ll be hired before you reach the last one.” Eventually, I worked for Showtime, Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and a series of artsy, independent films that never included time for sleeping in the production schedule. Oh, to be young, underpaid, and hurrying to shoot the next scene before sunrise.
- Independent producer. That title meant I was responsible for everything, including selling the job. Yes, that was me years ago closing the sale. Zig Ziglar and Geoffrey Gitomer, you are friends of mine. However, the responsibility taught me something business schools can’t teach and that is the everyday reality of the bottom line. Changes in a production schedule or talent affected my bottom line. Ouch.
- Web content strategist. For a business writer with a background in nonlinear video editing, the web provided a friendly canvas, and I started building sites for businesses while still producing video. One prominent example occurred when a well-known discount brokerage firm decided to launch a new business line to attract independent advisors. Naturally they needed a website, but in this early stage of business formation, these business visionaries had not yet produced any marketing materials. To clarify the company’s message, product offering, and positioning, I sorted through piles of PowerPoint files and days of interviews with the senior team. After establishing the website’s architecture, I wrote the content. In website development, the most challenging content work occurs before any writing begins. Content strategy is a process of building a framework that reflects a business’ brand while enabling prospects and customers to easily engage with the business through its content. Writers who enjoy this work tend to love it, because of that one eureka moment when it all comes together.
- Associate editorial director for a financial services firm during the 2008 financial crisis. For a communicator, that’s like having a front row seat at the Met. The soprano’s singing her aria and you see her shoulders lift with each deep breath.
After the shock and awe of Lehman’s collapse, one of the writers on my team reminded me that years prior, during his training, I had mentioned how unprepared our communications were for a significant market decline. And it’s true. We had educated investors about every aspect of investing, except how to handle extreme market volatility.
The events of 2008 and 2009 abound with lessons for communicators and business leaders alike. The more we look back and analyze, the more we understand how the seeds of mistrust were sown during that period of extreme volatility. Our institutions of business and government were unprepared from a communications standpoint. Therefore, they were unable to ease consumer anxiety, which caused people to feel more vulnerable. By analyzing those mistakes and understanding their impact, we see the path ahead for business. Now more than ever, everything hinges on trust.
At that same financial services company where I worked, the former chairman once said that no one cares about a company’s balance sheet until it matters. Then, it’s all they care about. The same can be said of trust and communication. No one cares about how we uphold trust through communication until it really matters. Then, it’s all that matters.
I’m not referring to a tactical crisis communication plan that enables a company to mitigate financial and legal risks during an emergency. Rather, I’m referring to a strategy that prioritizes relationships and trust. In some cases, our clients saw their portfolio values fall by 50% during the crisis. These customers weren’t afraid; they were terrified. It was a significant moment of truth. Because the vast majority of financial institutions were unprepared to demonstrate empathy during the storm, distrust of financial firms and businesses in general grew to an all-time high. Five years later, retail investors continue to leave the market, despite new highs on the Dow.
In business, scenario planning is commonly applied to functional activities: things like how employees will exit a building during a fire or how to manage a company’s balance sheet in light of unforeseeable events. However, scenario planning is rarely applied to emotional and non-functional disciplines such as trust. More to the point, businesses don’t assess the risk of breaking trust with their customers. There’s no planning process that enables leaders to better understand the role of trust in their business and how uncertainty and fear impact trust. In the absence of rigorous scenario planning, companies resort to what they know best during a crisis: providing rational explanations for emotional events. As a result, when communication is most needed, it fails most miserably.
The power of observation
During the worst days of the crisis, I learned the remarkable teaching power of objective observation. This is the listening skill that Stephen Covey was trying to teach. It means that we don’t just hear the words, but we understand the desire and intent behind the words. In this way, objective observation can reveal the seeds of things to come.
For me, observation revealed the criticality of audience centricity, not customer centricity, which is ineffectively one-sided. Audience centricity focuses on employees and customers, and the way people relate to each other from both sides of a product. Through observation, I also identified a type of segmentation I call mindset segmentation because it distinguishes people based on their values, desires, and expectations. And finally, I learned something I will reveal to you through this website: that trust has become the new currency of business.
Oftentimes, we think that keen observation requires searching for details, a process of looking under the obvious to find something real. Essentially, we don’t place a high value on things that are obvious, possibly because they seem too simple. During the crisis, customers and employees were frightened. Unfortunately, that observation was too basic and possibly too emotional for serious business consideration. From an analytical standpoint, “fear” doesn’t fit on a spreadsheet, and there is no precedent for addressing fear in our marketing or communication strategy. Because it didn’t apply to existing business processes, fear was overlooked.
Peter Drucker taught people to value the obvious. He said that the obvious is frequently the most difficult thing for people to recognize and embrace. Observations like “our customers are afraid,” can enable a business to capitalize on a tremendous market opportunity. If any financial services firm had managed to increase trust with customers during the crisis, their reputation would have benefited tremendously.
It all comes down to listening, and the way we listen. First we must open our minds, then we can open our ears. Mr. Drucker also explained how important these skills are in business. He said, “If you can detect what’s obvious, you tap into people’s greatest needs.”
Those are moments of truth we can build on.