What I Learned While Lecturing At College

There is something rejuvenating about speaking on college campuses, particularly when it offers the opportunity to reflect on your profession and your career choices. In our day-to-day world, we can often lose sight of why we do what we do, letting the frustrations of the day get in the way of the successes of the career.

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with students at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri about strategic communications. Heading in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve spoken at public and private universities. I’ve presented at Ivy League institutions and community colleges. At HBCUs and foreign universities. Each one is different, each comes with its own set of questions and its own frames of discussion.

Over the years, I’ve learned I’m an effective storyteller. Anyone in the communications profession can go onto a college campus and describe what their job is like. Speakers can approach such scenarios as if they are going in for a first round job interview or talking to someone at a cocktail party that they will never see again. They can provide a “just the facts” approach, as if they are describing the work to a crime scene investigator. Me, I prefer to tell old war stories.

It’s easy to get someone’s attention when you are able to talk about defending bomb-detecting dolphins trained by the U.S. Navy or flacking for a company that allegedly employed paramilitary death squads or managing an “angel of death” scenario at a local hospital or doing rhetorical battle with a brand name like Bill O’Reilly. Such tales make a communications job seem glamorous, taking away from those countless days and years in a cubicle cold-calling reporters and begging them to attend an event or review a release or the reams of paper and the countless drafts before a commentary meets the approval of the cast of thousands who may need to OK it.

Such stories, though, can often be the easy way out. It is one-way communication, with the storyteller (me) simply informing my audience. Even when one opens it up for questions, those answers are often simply more stories, or the expansion of the existing ones.

But in my discussion at Southwest Baptist University, I found a different discussion. Yes, the tales were entertaining (at least I thought so, but I’ve heard them all before). But the questions asked of me were illuminating. I was forced to go into my personal recesses and find answers to questions I haven’t asked myself in a long time. And in a few instances, explore some topics I have never consciously explored as a communications professional.

These were questions like:

  • What are the similarities in working in communications in fields like politics, government, healthcare, education? What are the differences?
  • Compare working in the private sector with working in the public sector? Working for for-profits versus not-for-profits? Which is better for a young professional? Why?
  • Is it better to be a communications generalist today or to specialize in a specific skill, like social media?
  • How does one measure the success, or failure, of communications initiatives? How do you know when you are doing it right?
  • How do you find the voice of your boss or your client?
  • I found that last question of particular interest and intrigue. I’ve been fortunate to be an on-the-record spokesman for more than two decades. I’ve also ghost written hundreds of commentaries for individuals over that time. In all of those years, I’m not sure I had ever thought about HOW to find that voice, I just did it.

When I worked for Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, I got there by watching his floor speeches and trying to parrot them. With Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, it was by reading his basketball memoir, Life on the Run. With the African-American national not-for-profit leader, it was from speaking one-on-one with him. With the former college president, it was from watching him speak to small groups. While each experience was different, each also shared a common thread. It was about finding voice in the setting where the speaker was most comfortable, most him or herself.

These were the sorts of questions that my 22-year-old self would never have known to ask. Heck, these are questions that my 30-year-old self wouldn’t have asked either. But these students were not just hearing the stories, but they were listening to them. And they were trying to distill these tales into useable lessons that would help them secure the jobs they sought and enter the careers they dreamed of.

At the same time, they reminded me of why I do what I do, what drew me to it, and what brings me the joy that keeps me from chucking it all and opening that cupcake shop on Grand Cayman. In teaching last week, I learned – or re-learned – a great deal.

(The above was also published in LinkedIn Pulse.)

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