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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Beware: What You Create Could Own You

Writing, designing, producing -- anything creative – can easily turn from imaginative to seductive. Our mission was clear and exciting when we started the article or graphic. Yet, at some point, after hours of brain-wrenching thinking and redrafting, we lost our way and what we were creating began to own us.

I know this dilemma well, as illustrated by this story.

The first speech I wrote in the first month of my first corporate job years ago had the industrial-strength title of “The Economics and Politics of Human Rights.” The title was mine. In fact, most of the thinking and all of the crafting – organizing, writing, and tuning – was mine. Or so I thought as I finished the first draft.

My hazing as the new guy was to write a speech for an executive vice president who had been invited to present at a prestigious business school. Other executives were quite comfortable talking at Rotary Club luncheons in plant communities about the company’s exploits. My client wanted to take on ethical issues. Eager to prove myself, I readily took the challenge.

I met briefly with the EVP who sketched his thoughts on the topic. I didn’t ask many questions because I was eager to frame up my own ideas, show him the finished piece, and then convince him to buy in. I wrote a draft quickly, hammered it endlessly, and gave it to the bosses on the three rungs above me. Two days later, they replied.

The cover memo was glowing. I glowed. They even used the “unique” word. Then I turned the page to review specific comments on the text. The margins were cluttered with critiques, some harsh; whole paragraphs were crossed out; summary criticisms were added at the end. Whoa! Panic attack.

By the third review of the massacre, I was getting somewhat objective. Perspective was returning. I realized that the more emotionally-laden comments were less about writing quality and more about the critics’ own enthusiasm for the topic. They were acting out the speech in their minds: envisioning it being delivered by the executive, watching the audience’s reaction, and anticipating questions. From that came their changes.

I could disagree with their specific alterations, but I could not disagree with their passion to make this unusual speech even more penetrating. I realized that the phrasing, the texture, and the substance were still mine, but the final speech was a composite of the three seasoned communicators and the novice.

After judiciously incorporating changes, I sent it to the EVP and subsequently met to discuss it. This time I listened. He liked the speech a lot. Much more important, however, he got talking comfortably and deeply about the impact on developing countries when their resources ran out and the metals company exited.

Hearing his heart-felt reflections, I knew I had to rework the speech at least once more. He had added a dimension I had overlooked as I rushed ahead to create what I knew could be an outstanding portfolio piece for me. He had humanized the topic. And he had reminded me without ever saying it that the speech was his not mine.
Remember the ring in JRR Tolkien’s trilogy? Everyone who possessed it was possessed by it. Similarly with our creative work, we are exhilarated by its power and sometimes overpowered by it. We flinch at suggested changes, restrict access to the work; position ourselves as authorities on it. Our pride blinds us to the ultimate purpose. In short, we mistake the means for the end, which is communication.

How does this happen?

3 Thoughts

1 We view communication as proprietary, not open-source.
The open-source concept, long fostered by software developers, is simple and uncomfortably counter-intuitive: give away your work to increase its worth. You come up with an ingenious original, but rather than protecting it as your property, you share it with others so they can add to and benefit from it. Your reward is that you started the value-adding chain.

That’s our job as creative types. We originate, collaborate, appropriate, and then let go. In other words, I created a speech, my more experienced bosses perfected it with me, the executive adapted it to his style, and the audience walked away with a different perspective that they can share with others. I am proud that I started the process flowing. If I demanded we do it my way, if my superiors demanded the corporate way, if the presenter had demanded that he knew better, communication would have been lost.

The best writers, designers, and other creative types I have known:
  • spend time walking around an idea or assignment;
  • agonize over approaches;
  • suddenly get inspired by an angle;
  • mash it up with other angles;
  • develop a love-hate relationship;
  • toss out the initial version;
  • and then yank it out of the recycle bin the next day and make it work.
They like the finished piece -- sometimes too much. They run it by others and try to keep quiet when feedback is unpleasant. But eventually they come to their senses, knowing that the value of what they incubated flowed partially from others and mostly from their own imagination. They also know that, ultimately, the value of their work will be determined by the people who receive and use it. If those people “get it,” it’s really good.

2 We view communication as standalone forms and job descriptions.
We know that the function – the purpose – of our communication work is to transfer what is in our heads – or our management or client’s heads – into the audience’s heads in ways that will shift their attitudes and alter their behavior. Yet we seem to be more addicted to the forms than to the function: the blog we write, the website we design, the event we organize.

Why wouldn’t we? Form gives us an immediate confirmation of accomplishment. It says we are doing our jobs producing publications as the publications manager or websites as the webmaster. Executing is what we get paid to do, isn’t it?

But is the publication or website communication? Actually, no, not in itself. It’s a piece of the puzzle. We probably agree on that point. But who is putting the pieces together? Isn’t that the job of anyone who calls himself or herself a communicator? Are we not integrators rather than separatists?

The point I think is obvious. Nothing we create should be a stand-alone. Our creations are nodes on a communication network. Together, we build that network.

3 We view communication as a support service not a business function.
I wrote about this issue in a previous blog post (Want to Communicate? Don’t Call the Communication Department). Summing up what I said:

Management views communication as strategic and part of their responsibility, primarily for two reasons:
  • Their personal communication skills, they believe, helped get them to where they are. They understand communication better than anyone, they think.
  • They confuse communication with information, which they consider something they originate, regulate, and approve.
Management views communicators as tactical.
In part, that’s because they have met few professional communicators who are anything but implementers. However, they typically think that more tactics will correct the organization’s weak communication.
Affirmation, appreciation, and respect for communicators can get skimpy in many organizations. We all moan at times about management’s failure to understand our work.

But switch places with an executive. Could she not complain that we lack an understanding of the business? If we want our work to have a greater impact on the big picture, we have to put on tri-focals to see that big picture, the medium-range plans of the organization, and the daily interactivity of various functions.

Finally, as if all of what I have said is not enough to overload your mind, here are ideas to help you reconsider ownership of what you create.

5 Ideas
  1. Read Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral & the Bazaar.
  2. Convert your next article, say on a profile of an ambitious employee, into three points that a salesperson could readily incorporate into a sales pitch he is making to a top prospect.
  3. When sending or presenting a creative work to your employer or client, have everyone in your group sign it.
  4. Identify the best communicator in the organization outside the communication department, and have him teach you communication from the outside in.
  5. Remove your title and those of your staff from business cards or call yourselves “Communicator.”

Richard Skaare 01.06.09