Digital Communication Breakdown and the Keys to Success in a Creative Career

Insights Posted on — 12.12.2012

Digital Communication Breakdown and the Keys to Success in a Creative Career


The topic of presenting our work has been coming up a lot around the office lately, and while many times the actual creative itself is on-point, the presentation still needs a lot of work.

Associate Creative Strategist Giving Advice to Junior Designer

Being able to communicate confidently in this business is vital, and our abilities are put to the test every single day. So, in light of that seemingly reoccurring conversation, this blog post is about communication and why it can make or break an idea, a campaign and eventually an entire career.

As a creative agency we often pride ourselves on being great communicators. We go to extreme lengths to communicate with users (and consumers) in a language they understand, enabling them to engage with our messages and feel like they’re part of a story we built just for them. Yet, we do a poor job of communicating with those whom our work requires us to talk to every day – our colleagues. And we need to be constantly getting better at it.

Good communication skills are what allow us to sell our work, justify our decisions, and stand behind our positions. This (along with actually doing good work of course) is how we gain the trust and respect of colleagues, bosses, and clients - something every creative ultimately needs. And it’s why all these little pieces of communication are so important.

So what’s so hard about communication, and how can we get better at it? Well, let’s start with the fact that we hate our inbox, but don’t know what we’d do without it. We have quick chats on Instant Messenger, Skype and Facebook. We have back-and-forth, thread-like conversations on Basecamp. But most of these communication channels don’t really satisfy us, make us feel better, or dissipate our concerns. On the contrary, they often make us even more anxious about work. So why is that?

It’s because people need human contact and interaction to flourish. And being in the physical presence of someone and having his/her emotional and intellectual attention makes people happy. Not having enough of those “human moments” can lead to vulnerability, self-doubt, and worry. Why? Because digital communication makes us miss all the benefits that come from communicating to while being in someone’s physical presence:

So with all of those questions being answered, we can safely assume that the “human moment” is a regulator: when you take it away, people’s primitive instincts can get the best of them. Just as in the anonymity of one’s vehicle, where stable people (like myself) can behave like crazed maniacs, so too on a keyboard: courteous people can become rude and abrupt.

Digital communication, for all of its positive advantages and benefits, removes all the cues that lessen worry. Just think about it – how many times has there been confusion on the severity/mood of a conversation over text? It happens all the time. As more and more people work alone from home offices, or in coffee shops with their headphones on all day, we get used to operating with less face-to-face interaction, and that impedes our ability to communicate in meetings, presentations and speeches. It’s important that we’re aware of this cultural and industrial normality - in both ourselves and in others.

Despite our digital lifestyles, we are NOT robots… we are emotional human beings.

Human beings desperately seek approval, dread criticism, and thrive on appreciation and encouragement. We are amazing at rationalizing our decisions and actions. From the most merciless criminals to devoted grandmothers, we all tell ourselves, and others, that it’s not our fault. The problem with this is that as creative professionals that get paid for our unique and original ideas, we must be accountable and take responsibility for our work, and not just when it’s good.

But our irrationality isn’t only bad. There are hundreds of studies proving that humans will work harder when their efforts are acknowledged, appreciated and meaningful than they will for financial gain alone. This is especially true with Creatives and the advertising, design, marketing and branding industries as a whole. It’s normal for irrationality, emotions, and deeply seeded desires to influence our behavior in the workplace. Understanding this fact is the first step to communicating with colleagues. When you see that someone feels discouraged, you can quickly offer a few positive words. If you do need to point out a mistake or offer constructive criticism, you can choose to do so in private. And when offer the criticism, you can couple it with confidence that the person will do better next time.

Considering the feelings of others might not sound like a top priority in becoming a great communicator, but it’s important to understand that the faintest insight into how we actually think, what motivates us, and what makes us disagreeable will only improve communications. And in turn, influence the responses and value we receive back.

Finding a “shared creative vocabulary” is critical in communication.

As digitally-minded creatives, one trap we typically know how to avoid is assuming that a user understands our jargon. Yet we do this to everyone else around us: other agencies, clients, and people in our company who aren’t “creatives.” When these people don’t seem to care about what we’re doing, we tend to write them off and say, “…they don’t get it.” It’s a lot easier to blame other people than to admit the obvious – and that is, we don’t really know how to get our point across in a language that those different from us will understand.

It’s our job as a creative problem solver, and a communication professional, to find the right language to communicate with our client. When we say a client doesn’t “get it” we might as well be saying, “I couldn’t figure out how to get my point across, and I am a lazy designer/writer/strategist.”

It’s funny because it’s true. We want people to care about “making things” and “creating something from nothing” as much as we do, but how can they if we speak to them in a foreign language? It’s important that we find a shared vocabulary and empower everyone else to become evangelists for our cause.

Instead of reading from a screen or a piece of paper, how can we build a narrative?

We like to create stories for our users – engaging and compelling narratives that delight them and make them feel like they’re part of something. We want them to feel invested in us, in our products and our websites. We want to bring them along on a carefully crafted journey. We think to ourselves, “If I were this person, what would I want to feel once I land on this site? What would my initial reaction be when I read this headline? What imagery would make me stay?” We consider their point of view. Then we step into a meeting and expect everyone to consider ours.

Instead of showing our work to our colleagues with a few mumbled words, a shrug and the expectation for them to get its sheer brilliance, it’s important to involve them from the start. This makes everyone feel like they are a part of the solution. Map out the future we see in front of us, and make them walk the same journey.

In closing, we know we need other people to do our jobs well. But we often say this - to ourselves and to everyone else - without taking the time to truly listen to, be inspired by, and understand the reasons behind the words or actions of others. We desperately want everyone to understand our motivations, to see that we’re upset and tell us something positive, to listen to us and marvel at our wisdom - yet we rarely bother to reciprocate.

We already have the right tools to communicate with one another effectively. We just need to put the same effort into communicating with colleagues and clients as we put into communicating with users that we will never meet. When we truly understand our colleagues and respect their needs, we will build stronger, more trusting relationships within our teams and organizations - and elevate the overall levels of our creative output because of it.