One of my fellow sailors, a physical therapist, asked me about my work. I mentioned that I’m kind of an "expert" in employee communication and executive communication. I have a hard enough time keeping a straight face when I say such a thing; she found it impossible; we both burst out laughing.
What does a communication "expert" know, exactly? It’s a question I’ve addressed before, but inadequately, I think. Here are a few concepts that a communicator knows, if not exclusively, then at least more thoroughly than the client; I hope you’ll add to them:
1. The world is not about your product or policy or program. The world is about people. This one comes from my ad man dad, who gave speeches on the subject to his creative team, and who believes his main contribution as a communicator was his willingness to figure out what the client’s product meant or could mean to the harried, worried, insecure, greedy, hopeful, ambitious, yearning, lovelorn "man inside the man." (Hey, it was the 1960s.)
That’s the main service we provide, to CEOs for whom we write speeches, subject matter experts whose work we’re charged to explain to employees—every client internally and externally. We’re the ones who know that people don’t care about what you’re selling, no matter how shiny it is. They care about themselves.
2. Communication doesn’t work real good. At least, it doesn’t work directly or immediately. Clients are often uptight about saying something for fear it’ll lead to something else. They’re nuts! Communicators know that one single communication almost never leads to anything. Communication is a vast combination of words and behavior and about seven million other mysterious ingredients. You don’t write a newsletter article or make a speech and see "behavior change" (the hokiest term in our business). It’s a nervous thing communication consultant to say, but it must be said: Communication is a marathon, boss.
3. Everybody already knows everything anyway. "We don’t want employees to know." Fill in the blank, they already know. They may not know the number of the layoffs, they may not know the timing, but they know something bad is in the air, just as sure as a husband knows when a wife has stopped loving him. Whether or not he feels like acknowledging it, he knows. We all know when we’re wanted, how we’re wanted, how much we’re wanted by every friend, colleague, company, political party and institution in the world. I call this my "everybody already knows everything" theory of communication. But it’s not a theory. It’s a truth. Communicators who set out to win people over to an idea or convince them of a cause had better have a sincere client behind them, because people will smell it if they don’t. (In fact, they already have.)
4. A certain amount of bullshit is good. In America especially, people like people who hustle, and we like hustlers, and we don’t really draw that much of a distinction between the two. I think people want you, within reason, to prove that you want the business by making some bold claims that they know you’re going to have to—there it is again—hustle to back up.
5. The Ron Santo Rule: People like people who ask for what they want. Every year when the Hall of Fame ballot comes up, Chicago reporters go to Ron Santo, a radio announcer and a longtime Cub third baseman, and ask him how he’s feeling. Santo, who has lost both legs due to diabetes, more or less cries out in agony: He wants so badly to be voted into the Hall, he believes he deserves to be in, and he’s trying not to get his hopes up for the 25th straight year of crushing disappointment (Santo retired in 1975). Then he doesn’t get in, and the reporters drag their cameras back, and Santo wails again. Maybe next year. Of course, the heart on the sleeve doesn’t get Santo into the Hall of Fame, but I believe it has won him the adoration of millions of baseball fans and almost everyone in Chicago. Which keeps Santo employed on the radio despite his rather thin talent as a color announcer. Similarly, we need to tell our clients that somewhere in all their strategic communication planning and message drivers they need to make sure they tell their audiences what they want from them. (And how badly they want it.)
6. People want to know more about what they already know. The late Larry Ragan, who taught me some stuff about communication that my dad didn’t, said this all the time: Irish people watch shows about Ireland, Democrats read columns by liberals, communicators read blogs about communications. To reach people, you’ve got to convince them they already know a little bit about what you’re saying; you’ve got to make a strange subject seem familiar. Once you’ve done that and hooked them—only then can you lead them into new places.
Again: Am I the only person in a given meeting who knows these things? No. According to my own third rule of comunication, everybody knows everything. (Although some people are in serious denial!)
What I bring to the table is a deep understanding of all of the above, and a subtle ability to know when each applies the most. And that, my friends, is why I’m a communication expert.
What makes you a communication expert?