"Tell me a story." This is my recommendation to young people hoping to enter the communications world. It begins with one's resume, extends to the interview, and, if one is fortunate enough to land the job, becomes the foundation of the work itself. When it comes to the communications profession: telling stories is the job.
Too few young people eager to begin a career in communications, however, have a genuine appreciation for language or story. One can go to a top school and get a terrific education in public relations through internships and exposure to professors who have done good work in the "real world." I'd argue, however, that if you specialize in communications you risk graduating with a tin ear about the world at large. I've been at RLM Finsbury for close to two decades and if there is anything that unites my eclectic mix of colleagues, it is that we're generalists who believe in the primacy of good writing.
Cogent storytelling is irreplaceable, no matter what new technology comes our way. Indeed, the great irony of e-mail and social media is that it's all text-based -- essentially a speedier way to deliver telegrams. If the upshot of the Internet and social media is how they compel everyone to write, the downside is that the speed of these media is making poor writing habits -- typos and spelling errors, a kind of willful ignoring of basic grammar and punctuation -- more widely accepted. And while writingoften imposes discipline on thinking, unfortunately, that is not always the case in social media.
Skilled communications professionals are, first and foremost, writers who in turn are good and close readers. So, if you want to become a communications professional -- read everything! Read The Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek and The New Yorker, but also read restaurant reviews, speeches, music lyrics, the sports pages and poetry and fiction. And if you're looking for some practical writing advice, let me suggest: Stephen King's On Writing;Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One; even Strunk and White's perennial but uneven Elements of Style.
Next, take a good hard look at your resume. Ask yourself this tough question: does this dense and action-packed single-page document chart a narrative -- does it tell a story? -- or is it simply a chronological collection of bullet points? Similarly, during a job interview when you're sitting across from a communications executive who asks you why you'd like to go into this field, think through your answer. Is it specific? Is it thoughtful? Is it memorable? Are you telling a story?
Once you've landed your dream gig, be mindful of the difference between being a writer and being a word processor. This can be an especially easy trap to fall into when dealing with very technical or arcane material. Copying and pasting a paragraph here, a boilerplate sentence there, a data point there, and tying it all up isn't writing -- it's sewing. Demand of yourself to go deeper with the material to root out thematic threads and subtext and news pegs. When it comes to crafting communications materials that will resonate in clear and compelling ways, the tough question is almost never "What happened?" but "What is this really about?" Good luck if you don't know the answer to that.
Next, advice from my college philosophy professor: write one true sentence -- the release's headline, the core of your pitch, the thrust of your strategy. If that first sentence is honest, the rest will follow, maybe... usually... not easily, but it will come.
Another truth: write something you'd want to read. Does it have juice? Does it achieve lift? Does it make me want to keep reading? On some basic level, all writing is creative writing. It doesn't matter whether one is writing a corporate press release, message points, or an executive stump speech, business writing with specific aims need not be mutually exclusive from prose that demonstrates a love of language and lyricism and metaphor. (Indeed, it is remarkable how many first-rate authors began in the communications fields -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, Dorothy Sayers, and Joseph Heller, to name a few.)
Finally, storytelling lessons can be found everywhere. I am not the first to suggest that our leaders rise and fall based on their ability to frame issues as stories. Indeed, one can watch Steven Spielberg'sLincoln as a case study in issues management. In rich and surprising ways the movie plays like a primer on smart communications work. It reveals our 16th President to be a communicator who knows how to tailor messages to different audiences, a brilliant legal and political tactician as comfortable quoting the Constitution, Hamlet,and the King James Bible as telling folksy backwoods yarns. A great generalist, President Lincoln knew the secret of good communications: to get something done, you need people to listen, and to do that, you need to tell a story.