Since the beginning of this year, I haven't posted much in the way of blogs. While it's tempting to blame this lapse on my busy work schedule and grad school, the truth is that I've been struggling to answer a seemingly simple question: What exactly is communication and why does it matter?
Whenever I explain my profession to people, they nod and make all the appropriate noises, but I can tell that a communications professional might as well be a database programmer or a widget engineer, for all they know and care.
In a previous post, I said "communication is an exchange of information between people or groups of people," but it's surprisingly difficult to find a simple, straight-forward source that explains why we should bother to communicate in the first place. Despite the publication of a couple of good recent articles that tackle the issue of organizational communications, the question of why we should communicate still intrigues me.
While I was mulling this over one day, I thought about a previous life, when I taught English to Japanese students. The biggest challenge was not just a linguistic one, but rather how to explain cultural concepts or idioms, ideas and philosophies, to facilitate basic conversations. It remains my purest experience of communicating, because I had to deconstruct and reassemble my own language to get the message across to people from all walks of life, as quickly and effectively as possible. I'll never take language for granted again.
At it's most basic level, communication is the transmission of information to other people to achieve a particular result. We all communicate, every day in lots of different situations. Music, mathematics, and painting are just a few examples of languages we use to convey meaning. Yet, we don't see these acts as means of communication. When we label something as "communication," people who are fluent communicators in their everyday lives become confused and anxious, because it seems like an unnatural act they have to perform. Maybe it's time to demystify the word and describe it more accurately as the flow of information between people and organizations to create impact.
Professional communicators are labeled with a variety of entertaining titles: public affairs directors, public information officers, public relations managers, and of course communications directors. There are significant differences between these functions, but, mostly they serve as intermediaries between people inside and outside the organization, providing information and collecting feedback.
I recently heard someone refer to strategy as fitting pieces of the puzzle together. If that is the case, then communications provides the intelligence to plan your next few moves. While our everyday work involves tasks as diverse as creating content, pushing out stories and information online, and speaking with reporters, the role of communicator is wasted if it is seen as a mere support function. The feedback mechanism that allows an organization to assess the success of its strategy is invaluable.
Communication is not about creating new products. It's about making better products. We don't compete with other departments or people; we help harness the flow of information and the exchange of ideas to achieve specific results.
The outcomes depend on the quality of the communicator, of course, but most of the professionals I have met are dedicated to creating impact and improving their organizations. Communications is sometimes referred to as a "privileged position," because of the department's bird's-eye view of the whole organization. We live in an age of information and, now more than ever, knowledge is power. We have to be careful how we wield that power, because it can be used to sell anything—from cans of soda to social causes.
When I returned to grad school last year, I learned about many fascinating theories and techniques, from the value of rigorous analysis and planning, to the strategic use of ambiguity and silence, and the need to engage stakeholders. However, the most valuable insight was the important role that communication plays in our everyday lives, whether we realize it or not. If communication is an exchange of information, we have to listen as well as speak. The most successful people and organizations are the ones that listen to others, care about their opinions, and adapt to the challenges and opportunities that life throws their way.