The Top 5 Pieces of Advice I’ve Received as a Communications Student
By Sophie Mark
One of my favorite questions to ask communications professionals is the one piece of advice they wish someone had told them when they were still students. I’ve been fortunate to have some excellent professors, bosses, co-workers, and guest speakers in the past few years who have shared their wisdom on this topic, whether they were directly asked or their actions demonstrated it. Thanks to them, here are five things I do know about communications now, while I’m still a student.
1. The key to success in communications is learning to present your ideas well.
If you’re one of the “creative people” whose job is to come up with the ideas or write or design the content, you don’t have to worry about public speaking as much, right? Wrong–as I quickly learned. As I’ve taken more creative and writing-intensive classes, those professors have often been the ones who have pushed us the hardest to get comfortable with standing up in front of everyone and selling why we came up with the idea we did. In one of my past internships in the marketing department at a very small company, the person who had to be sold on our ideas was the head of the company. By the end of the summer, I was meeting with him directly to present, explain, revise, and develop my work on a weekly basis. If I hadn’t already started to learn the importance of presenting my ideas well, I would never have been able to succeed in that internship. All those professors were right–you can never get too much experience presenting your ideas.
2. A little networking can go a long way.
Anyone in the communications field has probably heard “it’s all about who you know” a hundred times. It can be intimidating, especially if you don’t consider yourself a “people person.” However, one of the best things a public relations professor told me is that networking isn’t just chatting up strangers at events or building up your LinkedIn profile, but something you should do constantly in any professional setting. It means taking the time to say good morning to people in your office and paying attention to them instead of your phone when you’re in the elevator together. It means coming with great questions prepared when you have a guest speaker. And yes, it does mean going to professional development events and talking to as many people as you can. However, it’s cultivating these networking skills all the time, not just when you know you need to make an important connection, that pays off.
3. You don’t need to be an extrovert to be a good communicator.
There’s a common perception that people in communications, especially public relations, are always outgoing, charming, and instantly know what to say in any situation. My public relations professor once told our class that it’s not being an extrovert that matters, but being able to communicate well. That’s the sort of thing that doesn’t require extroversion, but rather listening skills and the ability to repeat things back to people in a thoughtful way. This also applies to the conversational level–often you can connect with someone much more deeply by listening to what they have to say and asking smart questions than leading the entire conversation yourself. Finally, if you spend time preparing what you have to say and thinking about how to communicate it well, you don’t have to rely on winning people over on the spot to convince them to listen to you or work with you.
4. Know what you don’t know, especially when you think you know.
My generation tends to feel like we have an edge when it comes to newer communications tools such as social media and digital marketing, since we’ve grown up as internet natives and are the primary target for many brands’ use of these tools. However, I learned something important from my boss when I first managed social media for an internship: having personal experience with something doesn’t always prepare you that well for doing it professionally. With social media, even if you’re working on a professional account that has a more casual tone, there tends to be a lot more preparation and strategy that goes into what you post, and you also have to pay attention to things like whether the images you want to use are under copyright or feature people who haven’t given permission for their picture to be used. Beyond social media, staying abreast of current trends in communications is essential no matter how much exposure you’ve had. Reading sources that identify the companies that are doing well is important, because often much of the communications we encounter in day-to-day life are not done well, and can give you all kinds of preconceived notions of what marketing and communications should sound like, which then have to be un-learned if you want your work to sound genuine and stand out.
5. Talk about communications with other people besides those who do it for a living.
Talk to someone who knows nothing about the campaign you’re working on, judge their reaction, and see if it makes sense to them without explanation. Also, no matter how much you stay up on current trends and events, there are always great things brands are doing that go under the radar, but your roommate or family member notices them because they’re in that brand’s target audience. Talking to these people is also a great way to improve at thinking outside the box for new ideas and strategies rather than imitating what you already see around you. There’s always that small handful of top-notch campaigns and top trends that everyone knows about and talks about and learns about ad nauseam in the communications industry, but these might not be the ones that stand out in the mind of your average person who isn’t a part of the industry, and sometimes that new bit of inspiration can refresh your thinking and make it more original.
Next time you’re in an environment with another communication, strike up a conversation. You never know what wisdom and insights they may offer you, whether they realize it or not.
What’s your best advice for communications professionals?