1. Be ready to WORK.
And not in the Rihanna sense, either.
A degree in communication doesn’t guarantee you a job anywhere. It especially doesn’t guarantee you a job in the field.
It’s been widely established that there’s fierce competition for the small number of communication-related jobs available in any number of industries. You should consider any opportunity to get relevant experience part of your higher education. Even if you need a ‘real job’ to earn money to pay for food or rent, you must also find the time to get real-world communication experience.
Don’t underestimate on-campus opportunities. Seek out your university’s newspaper, yearbook, radio station, TV station, web or graphics team or marketing / public information department. These gigs may not pay – or may pay very minimally. But they’ll allow you to hone your skills and build a portfolio full of clips you can present at job interviews.
THIS IS SUPER IMPORTANT! I believe that with a well-rounded portfolio, you can edge out your competition. I credit it with helping me land a job as Public Information Officer for a local government.
For me, working at my university’s newspaper and yearbook provided invaluable on-the-job training. I was able to move into an assistant editor position that provided me not only with leadership training, but closer connections to faculty, staff and business people outside of the university structure. Talk to faculty about any opportunities for internships as well – you can easily get experience as well as class credit at many universities.
2. Pay attention.
You know the saying, “I know it when I see it?” Yes, this is what a Supreme Court justice used to attempt to describe obscenity in Roth v. United States, but hear me out.
If you’ve ever taken an interpersonal communication class, you’ve learned about the scientifically proven best ways to LISTEN. The advent of social media has ensured that even mass communicators need to be able to listen. And you should make observing, reading / listening to and analyzing all types of communications a habit.
Admittedly, I was always a media nerd. My mom used to read the newspaper to me as a baby. And I’m also 13-year veteran of art class critiques. I love picking apart newspaper layouts in particular – “Is the placement of stories advantageous to the reader?” “Do the headlines make sense; do they pique my interest?” “Are the lead sentences effective?”
Paying attention can help you become a better communicator (and trivia contestant!) by ensuring you avoid what doesn’t work. You’ll know it when you see it!
It can also help you create a style of your own. Take a close look at how other journalists, marketers and designers express themselves and pick out the best bits to incorporate into your work.
Let me be clear (thanks Pres. Obama)… I’m not condoning plagiarism. But there’s nothing wrong with using a little inspiration to help you become a more dynamic and effective employee / communicator.
3. Have a thick skin.
Outside of politics, I can think of no career field in which this advice is as important.
Many communication jobs are fast-paced, multi-tasking beasts. Decisions are made quickly. It’s just that easy for even the best of us to make mistakes. And you’ll be called on them – even small ones you think are insignificant in the grand scheme.
This is advice I struggle with every day. I pride myself on accuracy, and when I don’t meet my own standards, I can get down on myself. But the test of a true die-hard career communicator is the ability to learn from mistakes and internalize your organization’s needs, wishes and style for use in future work.
I’m not saying you should let every last whim of your editor or boss fly without a discussion, especially when you know it goes against your training. Your way may be more efficient and effective. Maybe your higher ups don’t understand the theories and thinking behind your modus operandi (which, in my experience, happens often, especially in corporate environments).
But sometimes there is a rhyme and reason to their requests. They may just need to be tweaked through the lens of a trained communicator like yourself.
Quick personal story: I decided to quit my job as a managing editor of a newspaper after a reader called and read me the riot act for misspelling her mom’s first name (in an obituary call out, no less) on the front page. My mistake was devastating to that reader, and I was so disappointed in myself. It was a super easy mistake to make since the obits were one of the last pieces to get laid down on the page. The name itself was unusual, so the spelling didn’t strike me as odd, even though it was very wrong.
That was perhaps the wrong reason to leave that job. But I knew working for a newspaper long-term wasn’t going to work for me. It ended up leading me to another good opportunity.
You’ll need to learn how to let mistakes roll off your back at all costs. Whether you are born with that ability or learn it as you go, it’s really for the best.
There are two schools of thought (as I see it), when it comes to communications as a career field.
One is to be a jack-or-jill-of-all-trades. Know how to write. Know how to maintain websites. And edit video. And do graphics. Know a little bit of everything without being a super-duper-master of all. You’ll be very valuable to your organization. They won’t need to contract out much of the work and will still get a decent product.
Two is to specialize to the max. Be the best damn video editor out there. Learn how to do all the special effects. Move to California and work for Disney. (OK, maybe that’s going a bit too far.)
But whether you choose path one or path two, you need to understand the value of being able to innovate. Many times companies and organizations need help understanding the worth of what you do as a communicator. Being able to present new, innovative and effective ideas is one way to stay on the forefront of everyone’s minds. (This is where being observant is extremely important – you’ll need inspiration!)
For example, when I worked for government, I by default became the runner of a 24/7 cable access channel. We could have just let it go the way it was, playing a slideshow and music. But we decided to innovate. We created packaged video segments for everything from infrastructure projects to community events and eventually put together a monthly talk show.
More residents watch the channel and know to use it as a tool for emergency communication now than ever before. By innovating, we were able to not only increase interest, but also ensure this medium was being used widely for its first intended purpose.
It’s cliché to say, but always think outside the box. You never know where it could lead.
Renee A. Simpson is a communications specialist in the Greater New Orleans area. For more information about her, visit www.melismaticdesigns.com.