Story behind the Passage
It was some weekday morning in the spring of 2007, I was 23 years old and in the second semester of my university studies. The wife of a young colleague of my Dad called me at home. “Silke, my boss is looking for someone who can write. We need a magazine for our branch offices and another one for our staff. I remembered that you like writing. Does that sound interesting to you?”
This was the beginning of my practical career in communication. I had never planned on doing “PR” work. I am putting it into quotation marks because I had no idea what the term implied back then. I was studying Communication as a major because my dream was to become a journalist (well, that never quite worked out — not yet). Writing for a company was not on my radar back then. And there was hardly any chance that I could take the job. “It sounds interesting,” I responded, “but I am actually going to study abroad for a year in just a few months,” I explained. “I am sure your boss wants someone who is around.” My friend pondered for just a short moment. “Hmm, I am not even sure of that,” she said. “You know what, just come in and meet him anyways. Klick.” She hang up.
Thereafter, everything went pretty quickly. I got the job, started writing and editing while still in Germany and then from the U.S., Yemen, Cuba, and wherever I went afterwards. My boss was a New Work pioneer, you might say from today’s perspective. He cared about results, not about paying his people for sitting in some office and watching the clock tick. I learned much from him, even though I hardly ever saw him. I know, he cared about what people were doing for the company. Later, I used the opportunity to complete a distant study program on Public Relations and he supported it financially. At the end, after having worked for the company for about three years, I even got the chance to run my first in-house training workshop on journalistic writing.
The reason why I am talking about all this today is because I am thinking a lot about my professional beginnings these days. Just this afternoon, I had a call with a former colleague of mine from university who is also very much into transferring literary studies knowledge to the ‘real’ world. What separates me from most of my (former) colleagues is the fact that I always applied my knowledge in various different fields outside university. For me, this was simply a matter of becoming who I am today. I had to follow my curiosity, my thurst for adventure, my inner drive to do things, to share and apply knowledge. And as soon as I learned again and again that this kind of learning made me grow a lot more than simply reading books, discussing them and writing boring papers, there was no way that I could return to being “just” an academic and later a scholar.
No matter how many different things I did in the course of the last 10 years since then, I am becoming more and more aware of the degree in which communication — as a field of study and practice — has come to shape my life and career without me even being aware of it. I mean, just take this example of the blog now. I am writing because I love writing. But I am pretty sure, my writing would look different if I had not practiced it in so many different ways in the past. Is that to say that working in PR is the key to everything?
Of course not — but communication probably comes closest to an overarching label for all the things I do and think about. The theories and methods that I picked up in my university studies and the additional distant study program, as well as other trainings that followed, really shaped my thinking irreversibly. As soon as you understand that basically everything in life is related to communication — because that is simply the way living beings interact with each other — the topic gains a magnitude that can hardly be ignored or challenged by other topics or interests.
The passage above from McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory is just one among so many that I could have chosen from the book. It has become somewhat of a ‘Bible’ to me. Whenever I want to use a basic definition of some concept in a text, I usually consult McQuail first. I think, it was in the first semester of my Media Studies program when I learned about McQuail as one of the founding fathers of mass communication as a field of study. It was quite fascinating for me to learn about all these important figures, including Shannon and Weaver, Lasswell, McLuhan and so many more. I think, there were no classes in my entire university curriculum from which I gained more theoretical knowledge than from these lectures that still accompany and shape me and my work today.
“The main function of narrative is to help make sense of reports of experience.” You might argue that “function” is the wrong word here. Given the fact that storytelling is simply human, it is hard to immediately link it to some function which suggests intentionality. But I do not want to get into picky hyper-intellectual theorizing here — especially since I am the one telling people to consciously use narratives to state their point.
For a person like me who thinks in stories all the time, I am a living testimony to the claim that narrative supports or even enables sensemaking (understanding things via stories). The opposite, or rather the complementary function of this interpretive part, is sensegiving (conveying meaning via stories). In either case, you ensure that the message sticks. People remember stories because of the structure and logic narratives imply. Is this not what we all aim for when communicating — being heard and understood?
Especially in the current Covid crisis, I always ask myself how much more difficult the crisis might be for certain people simply because communication is not tailored according their specific needs. And I do not even mean any handicapped, sick, or socially excluded people who might have very special needs anyway and are difficult to reach for many reasons. No, one does not always have to focus on the extremes. I simply mean ‘normal’ people working in previously successful companies who are now being faced with financial hardship and maybe no alternative to losing their job. Well, ‘downsizing’ is the trendy word for this, right?
Even if they keep their jobs, I am pretty sure that the lack of good communication, i.e., a type of communication that presents facts but also considers emotional aspects, poses an additional burden to many people. A boss who communicates unclearly or without any talent to put himself into the shoes of someone else is a pain in the butt — and one that can hurt pretty badly. It does not matter how nice or experienced leaders are and how understanding their staff — communication can quickly get out of hands without anybody noticing that the real problem is not even the thing talked about, it is the way in which people talk about it.
I remember a police woman I once interviewed. She had been on duty for almost thirty years. I wanted to know what had made her join the police in the first place. Her answer was this:
“This was a very easy decision. I was 16 or so at the time and sitting in class at school when some police officers came to our classroom and asked for me. Then the guy, without any sensitivity or concern, asked in front of all my classmates why I had not been able to stop my boyfriend from killing himself in a car crash! They had just found him in the car wreck. That was it for me. I said to myself: You can do better than that. A year later I applied, got accepted and then joined the homicide division. Whenever there was a homicide, I wanted to be the one telling the family about the loss . And it worked. I even ‘enjoyed’ delivering news of someone’s death because I felt that I did something meaningful by being more sensitive than the guy back then in the classroom.”
This story really touched me. The way in which she described the role of communication as a driver behind a career that has lasted for her entire professional life was simply incredible. She told it with such clarity. But all of us could mention personal examples that underline the power of communication. It is just that we are hardly ever aware of how important communication is for everything we do and understand. We take it for granted and only notice its significance when things go wrong. Does sensemaking via narratives prevent problems? Is communication even a synonym for narrative then?
No, and I am noticing just now that I skipped any attempt of defining communication at the beginning of this post today. Maybe that is because my entire text can be read as a definition. For sure, all the foundational definitions of communication as input/output model (Shannon and Weaver) and system of encoding/decoding (Hall) are much more universal and helpful for defining and understanding communication. Still, in some way, communication for me is the main topic in the narrative of my life. And I am quite curious to see where it might take me in the future…
1) How important is communication in your job?
2) Is there a particular course from your school or university time that truly changed the way you think?
3) Would you describe yourself as a good storyteller? Why/not?
Read more essays from Silke’s 365 Days Blogging Challenge