My advice for English grads

Mum and Dad never gave me a lot of career advice.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Unlike some of my friends’ parents, they were pretty relaxed about what I ended up doing. If pushed, their advice began and ended with “Study what you’re interested in. Everything else will take care of itself.”

Nice idea in theory. But it does leave quite a lot in the lap of the gods, particularly if your interests — like mine — lie more in the way of literature than, say, accounting or law or computer programming.

When I graduated with my English degree, I was lucky that a friend of a friend of a friend happened to run a small PR agency, and was willing to give me a job. But it’s a question facing a lot of arts grads: what can I offer that employers would want?

Admittedly, unless you find a job in a publishing firm or go into academia, there aren’t too many professions that will pay you to read books.

But arts grads — and English Literature ones in particular — should realise that reading and writing skills are valuable commodities. I’ve worked in the PR and communications industry for a while and if there’s one piece of encouragement I can offer new grads, it’s this:

Writing well — and I mean really well — is not something many people can do.

Now I don’t consider myself a particularly talented writer. Some of my contemporaries at university who studied creative writing would scoff at my work. But I do know how to string a few words together in a reasonably fluent way, and can distil complex information into a readily understood story. While this seems fairly straightforward to me, it can be a daunting proposition for lots of people who don’t have to do it day in, day out.

And it’s an important thing for businesses to be able to do well. Obviously each workplace is different but there are some commonalities — the need to market products, to justify actions, to recruit potential employees. That’s always been the case to some extent but gone are the days when consumers or citizens were willing to leave organisations to their own devices on the assumption they would always act in good faith. There is a greater emphasis on transparency and accountability now than ever before, and new ways of marketing and engaging with customers demand different, more nuanced forms of communication than simply throwing an ad on a billboard.

And don’t just take my word for it — some of the world’s top economists agree. Stefan Ingves, governor of Sweden’s reserve bank, even describes himself as a storyteller. “We human beings simply love stories about the future. That’s part of my job.”

In short, people want to understand what is being done, why it is being done and what it means for them, and they want all that explained to them in clear, compelling language.

You might think that sounds pretty simple but it’s not. And while AI is getting to the point where it can draft emails or short documents with minimal human intervention, I’m confident the ability to write in a coherent and compelling way will be in demand for some time to come.

While important, the ability to write well is not the only thing you’re going to need if you’re thinking about PR or communications as a career.

  • You need a healthy degree of scepticism

One of the main values of comms professionals is their ability to provide a layperson’s perspective on things. It’s very easy to get sucked into whatever your product team is pushing. But before you get down to working out exactly how you’re going to write about it, you need to ask the most important question of all: Why should people care?

And you need to keep asking that question until you get a decent answer. It can be hard for young professionals to challenge what a product expert or someone more senior is saying but it’s one of the most important skills to learn.

  • You can’t solve everything

I sometimes wonder whether my profession has been too successful at making itself indispensable in the business world. We’ve created a sense that language trumps all, that everything can be spun, and that if you find the right words and put them together in just the right way, all your problems will vanish.

This is not true. If something is a bad product, initiative or idea, there is very little a communications team can do to convert it into something worthwhile. You might be the best writer in the world but you’re not an alchemist. Lead will stay lead.

  • You can always get better

I firmly believe writing is a craft. It’s something to be practised and refined. The perfect speech doesn’t get delivered by a heavenly Muse if you just wait long enough. In some ways, the speech you’re working on now is the culmination of all the other speeches you’ve written up to that point in your career.

In practice, that means being open to advice, criticism and alternative perspectives. It means experimenting with different styles and modes — working out how a blogpost differs from an op-ed, and a media release from a Facebook post. It also means drawing on lots of different sources for inspiration from podcasts to fiction, to business journalism, to arts criticism. It’s very easy for your writing to go stale so you need to remain open to as many different influences as you can.

So there you have it — the one piece of advice I feel qualified to give at this stage in my career. Don’t underestimate the value of being able to write well. It’s rarer than you might think.