Yantas and Shamans: The Many Roles of Corporate Communicators

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When it comes to internal communications, corporate communicators must play many roles: business partners, storytellers, yentas, talk-show hosts, court jesters, shamans, cardiologists, jugglers, coaches, and psychic advisors. It is, says the speaker, almost impossible to overstate the importance of the communicator's role in today's business. Keynote address to the Strategic Communications Conference, International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), Calgary, September 25, 1997.

I must say it truly is an honor -- and a somewhat daunting prospect -- to be asked to provide my thoughts from a CEO's perspective on the importance of communications in today's organizations to a forum of communicators.

Generally, as the CEO of a trust company, I'm invited to speak on truly thrilling topics such as "Successfully Implementing the Modified DEITS Methodology for AIMR Compliant Account Level Performance," our "Innovative uses of CHAID Analysis to Predict Beneficiary Investment Levels to the Year 2005." Needless to say, when I went looking for material from my recent speeches to use here today, I came up a tad short!

In 490 BC, a Greek soldier named Pheidippides ran 24.85 miles from a battlefield at the site of the town of Marathon to Athens, bringing news of a Greek victory over the Persians. Legend has it that Pheidippides delivered his momentous message, "Niki," meaning, "Victory!" -- then collapsed and died! Communications have come a long way since Pheidippides' historic run. Contrast that communication method to today: where massive amounts of information are available at your fingertips through the Internet to a world in which we leave each other more than 12 billion voice mails a year. To a world in which over 2.2 billion people watched Princess Diana's funeral on television -- almost half the entire planet.

Every day, we're all bombarded with thousands of messages, through dozens of different channels. As professional communicators, you must relate to the opening lines of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity..."

We've all experienced the frustration and disappointment of miscommunication. The simplest things can go wildly wrong if communications messages don't connect. One of my favorite examples of "missed messages" is a true story of a man with a simple quest: buying a birthday cake for his wife. As is often the case in our time -- crunched lives, guess what? He had left it to the last munute and needed the cake that very evening.

"No problem," thinks our hero. "I'll just call the local bakery and order it right now." And here's how the conversation went:

"Sam, it's Mark. I need a cake. It's Susan's birthday -- today."

"No problem, Mark. What do you want me to write on the cake?"

"OK, in the middle write, `Happy 40th Birthday, Susan.' Then write, `You're not getting older' on top, and `You're getting better' on the bottom."

"OK, no problem. It'll be ready at five."

A greatly relieved Mark speeds off to Canadian Tire to complete the rest of his "to-do" list. Later that evening, the celebrations are in full swing and Mark proudly opens the cake. And there on the cake, for all to see, is his message to Susan: "Happy birthday Susan -- You're not getting older on top -- You're getting better on the bottom!"

If such a simple task can go awry, imagine the potential for mixed messages, misinterpreted signals and missed communication in the world in which we live today. The tower of Babel goes digital.

It would be almost impossible for me to overstate the importance of the communicator's role in business today. As CEO, I look squarely to you to do two things: build belief and create confidence among the employees of the organization. …