Welcome to the professional communicator’s conundrum.
I was talking about this with one of my clients recently, particularly about how much I used to lament the fact that I’m not the person who comes up with potentially world changing ideas. I’m not the inventor.
I’m the one standing next to the inventor, translating what they’ve created into something the average person can understand. And that’s ok.
But it wasn’t always so easy to see my worth as a behind-the-scenes communications manager. Here are three phrases that I struggled to hear but now proudly own as a professional communicator:
1. You’re a safe pair of hands
When leaving my job at a European law firm, I remember a Partner at the time saying to me that he was going to miss my PowerPoint skills (ah, the communicator’s Achilles heel). He then patted me on the shoulder and said “thank you for being a safe pair of hands.” He also put a shot of tequila in those safe hands (but that’s another story).
That night and over the next few days, his comments did not sit well with me. I remember ranting to my flatmate about how insulted I felt. I had contributed so much strategic communication expertise to that company, particularly in times of significant changes to the professional landscape. I supported the senior management team through a range of employee engagement minefields. How dare he reduce all of that to me being a safe pair of hands!
But, years later, when I found myself relaying this story to a friend of mine, she reinforced his point. “But you are a safe pair of hands. That’s what you’ve been doing all of these years. People trust you, particularly in tough times, and want you in their corner.”
I thought about it a little more and thought, yes that is the measure of a good communications professional. It is someone who doesn’t need excessive briefing on complex matters. It is someone who can comprehend actions that need to be taken and who to involve, when. We should be proud to be a safe pair of hands.
2. You’re relatable
Last year I signed up to a personal creative challenge. I still can’t believe I stood in front of family, friends and strangers and did this. That’s a right folks; I did a six-week stand-up comedy course. After just six two-hour classes, I stood up on stage at a pub in Balmain and performed a stand-up comedy routine. Stop searching for it on YouTube!
What I found quite challenging in the first class was talking through our on-stage personas with the teacher. Everyone in the room got assigned creatively challenging personas like ‘dumb jock’ and ‘world weary’. As the teacher was pointing at each of my classmates, he took their regular personalities and dialled them up to a collection of brilliantly exaggerated comedy personas.
So what happened when he reached me? Relatable, he said. You’re relatable.
Wow. Way to deflate my enthusiasm buddy.
But, in thinking about it from a communications perspective, that’s exactly what I am and what we need to be to engage with people professionally speaking. People need to see themselves in the stories we share. They need to be able to relate that experience or organisation ambition to their lives and hopes. Whether using their own voice or the organisation’s, it is every professional communicator’s challenge and obligation to be relatable.
3. You’re such a chameleon
Going way back to one of my first communication jobs, this comment has stuck with me for years. I was reminded of it again recently when one of my communications peers said to me, “in this job we spend so much time articulating other people’s opinions; do you ever wonder what your opinion is?”
That’s deep, man. This is what your corporate communicators think about as they go about their day.
I remember thinking that very same thing years ago when someone called me a chameleon in the office. What I heard was, I have no opinion or personality of my own and am just shifting into whatever is required of me that day. But, that was seriously underselling my capabilities.
What they meant was that I could talk just as effectively to junior staff as I could to senior management. What they were trying to say is that I admire your ability to walk in many worlds and engage with a diverse range of people in the business world and community. What I hope it means is that communicators are able challenge and test opinions by stepping in the shoes of the intended audience rather than simply drafting something and hitting send.
So, to all of my fellow professional communicators who are often on the receiving end of these comments, please take them as they are intended, not how they first sound when spoken.
You are a chameleon. You are relatable. You are a safe pair of hands.
Know your worth communicators.