A young friend—a student in a creative communications progam—recently asked me to name the one skill that has been especially useful to me in my career.
“It seems that the communications world is changing so much that some of the skills I put time into learning might not be as valuable years down the road,” he said.
“Can you think of skills that you've always improved upon that haven't gone out of style?”
What would you respond?
What I told him was that the most important thing for me in my 37 years of doing journalism, communications and marketing is not a skill at all.
For me, if there is any one thing that separates great communicators from good or average communicators, it is being curious about the world.
Curiosity is not a skill; it is a quality of your personality, something you develop and nurture.
It is always asking: "Why?"
Fortunately, many of the people attracted to careers in journalism or communications are headed that way because they are curious—they want to know why the world works the way it does, or why people behave the way they do.
As for the skills needed to do communications, those will always be changing.
I have seen that up-close during my career.
Since I started in 1981, I've gone from the world of Gutenberg to the world of Google; from mailing press releases to fax to e-mail; from pasting up magazine pages to graphic design programs; from land lines to cell phones; from printed newspapers to social media.
It’s been an amazing and dizzying trip. So many changes!
But one thing has always stayed the same for me: Being curious about the world, and then telling the stories I find along the way.
And when you are curious, there's no end to the stories you will find.
My friend Steve Bell put it this way, in the context of songwriting.
When people compliment him on the songs he writes, he demurs, telling them that the songs are all out there—he just bumps into them because he has his antennae up.
Similarly, good communicators are people who have their antennae up. They can’t help bumping into stories, no matter where they go—because stories are everywhere.
Of course, having good skills is also important, especially at a time when the way people receive information is changing so fast.
But just knowing how to use the latest technology isn’t enough. I have met skilled communicators who turn out pedestrian work.
The best communicators, in my opinion, are the ones who see stories that others don't. They have their antennae up all the time.
They are always alert and alive to the story ideas that are all around them; they can't stop looking for them.
After finding the stories, they need to know the best ways to tell them. That's where skill comes in.
But it all starts with curiosity, so you can use your skills to tell the stories you find.
One of the best quotes about the role of technology versus storytelling comes from famed American journalist Edward R. Murrow.
Murrow, who died in 1965, never got to see how computers changed the way we communicate. He never knew about something called the Internet.
But he saw enough to know what they could—and couldn’t—do.
“The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.”
That, and how to be, and stay, curious.
Image above from The Hans India.