There are moments when you’re in a meeting and trying to tackle a problem. Doesn’t matter what the issue is, doesn’t really matter what the industry is. There’s a problem and someone sitting at the table invariably says that what’s really needed is better communications. Typically, that person isn’t actually part of the Communications team. But communications can be something of a catchall. On some level, everything is about communications. To be fair, you can say the same thing about physics or chemistry or neuroscience.
I didn’t spend much time in the career center on the Hill to my detriment. But even if I had, I suspect I still would have bounced around jobs as I did. Starting out, I didn’t have a sense of the subject area I was most interested in. But no matter what I was getting paid to do, in whatever field or capacity, it invariably involved writing. It’s how you go from covering Y2K or infrastructure investment in Lincoln, Nebraska to explaining why your employer really didn’t break the global economy to making a case for plant-based lipids or the benefits of proof-of-stake validation in a blockchain.
Writing is core to good communications and Hamilton certainly provides ample occasion to hone the craft. But the writing was only half of the story that brings me to today. The other half was curiosity. Asking questions is a big part of what a journalist does. Making complex situations more simple is part of what someone in corporate communications does.
Trying to make sense of what happened in 2008 to the global economy, for example, involves understanding many layers of complexity — from negative convexity to naked short selling — no matter how arcane the material can get. That requires asking questions, talking with people, being curious, seeking out information — and that’s part of the fun.
The next part of the fun comes from taking everything you’ve amassed over that time and trying to make sense of it. That’s writing and revising. The degree to which certain areas are weighted more heavily than others, that’s less about communications and more about agenda. Someone will always apply an agenda to a narrative, but it helps to start off with as many of the facts of the matter as possible. Crafting those facts into part of a story, that’s about finding the right word that will have the right impact — think about Twain’s famous line: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” You also have to be thoughtful about sequencing it all — asking yourself, how do people receive information, how much can they retain, what else are they being exposed to that may complicate or jeopardize reception. But that’s part of the fun to, like watching dominoes fall and the absurdly satisfying clink they make when they do.
There’s more, of course. How you interact with a large multinational is wildly different than how you engage a startup. In both cases, however, you’re likely to have messianic personalities to contend with and often an unclear purpose to the communications. Everyone in one way or another says, “We want to save the world.” Those six words are easy — the next six hundred are the hard part. And that’s where good communications counsel comes into play — helping to take ideas circulating inside the profounds of mind of CEOs or young founders and translating them into reality, into words and sentences of varying lengths to be shared at prescribed intervals. Because a strategy can’t really do anything until it’s shared with people, until the steps you need to activate it are articulated, and until the landscape against which it will be rolled out is understood by everyone involved — which is to say, until all of that is put into words and communicated, which leads you back to the premise that everything is about communications.
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Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t the only one to end up someplace that you could consider communications. A couple of years ago, I reconnected with a handful of Hamilton classmates and other alums whose time on the Hill overlapped with mine. They had majored in political science, history — but most were in Comp Lit. Twenty years later, they were all in digital media. As fascinating as Lyotard or Cixous, Foner or Kearns Goodwin may be, those folks aren’t really hiring.
The mid- to late 90’s had little to recommend it, but where most others of the day saw Melrose Place and Sugar Ray, they saw opportunity and realized it, because they were curious, could write, and were able to think critically about highly complex things — the hallmarks of good communications as well as a good liberal arts education. Some of them launched their own ventures, while others helped to create new digital arms with established brands. The other commonality amongst them: they were wildly successful. And I truly believe that each of them will tell you that, while no one ever took a class in the digital economy or social media, having that rigorous and wide-ranging education played a huge role in achieving that success. If you want to ask them, look them up on LinkedIn under HamTech.