During the full length of my career, I’ve had this guiding principle; learn how to write and become a fast writer. These days, literacy might be wide spread, but the art of writing is still a well-kept secret residing in the fingertips of the few. The majority of those working in the PR industry can’t write, not really.
Realization I: The world is changing and so is the art of communicating well.
I would compare writing with waving a gun around. Writing on the internet is playing around with a gun which also happens to be loaded. Anyone can pull a trigger, anyone might actually hit something, but being in total control requires solid training, physical and mental. A natural knack for it can’t hurt (i.e. Social Media Naturals), but there’s more to handle a loaded gun than to have good aim.
I even know of published authors who can’t write. They might have good aim, but they write not of matters of the heart, as William Faulkner said 1950 in is acceptance speech for the Nobel Price in Literature. Writing has as many colors as a Monet, as many angles as David, as many textures and octaves as the full works of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin put together. For a deeper understanding of painstaking journey to writing well, read On Becoming A Novelist by John Gardner.
I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics for all Nordic languages including Icelandic and I’ve struggled with writing novels and short stories all my life. And I have this fascination of how grammar has so many touch points with code. And just as I felt that I was starting to get the hang of Basic and C++, I had to get onboard with HTML and then PHP/CSS.
Realization II: Writing is to communication what code is to programming.
Let it be said, I’m terrible at coding. I Google more than I actually type. I’m like a first-grader writing his first fictional story; it’s crude and anything that actually works is more blind luck than anything else. Enjoying the process helps, but not that much. The same is true for English; I’ve acquired a bit more control, but I’m still waving a loaded gun around.
But what to do? I’m not writing for Swedes, I’m writing for marketing geeks all over the place. And our language happens to be English, period. Our primary medium happens to be the internet, period. So I’m writing proposals, presentations, emails, blog posts, status updates, tweets, strategies, guidelines and manuals—all in English. How good I am is secondary to how good I need to become to be a solid communicator in a rapidly evolving media landscape. Period.
And in this digital paradigm of ours, what can coders teach us writers? Here’s what I have realized:
What. You. See. Is. What. You. Get.
Coders understand the powers of instant gratification in the creative process. Because coding these days isn’t necessary to spend all your time in a text editor. With evolved interfaces, we can use WYSIWYG editors instead of having to merge the visual representations of what we’re trying to create with the basic building blocks. This is a powerful guiding principle and if you won’t take my word for it, take Bret Victor’s.
Realization III: The fundamental creative revolution will be unleashed when UIs allows anyone direct creative freedom.
Evolved interfaces is the baseline explanation to the blogging phenomenon. Without CMS platforms like WordPress for instance, blogging would be the privilege of hardcore text edit coders. And most blogs would probably be about coding.
Over and over again, the different mediums impacts the world in a much more profoundly than ever does the messages conveyed through them. If nothing else, Marshall McLuhan’s genius is kicking in long after his own death in 1980 and if you haven’t read his writings lately, you should revisit them.
The internet is the most capable medium for functioning as an extension of our brain, with its memory, logic, visualization capacity and scripted motor skills, which in turn makes it into our first medium. Give a kid an intuitive enough user interface and the kid will be communicating through self-made applications in no time.
Realization IV: In a few years, we will all be communicating through what we today consider advanced levels of coding.
Soccer moms will be organizing schedules through interactive scripts they’ve created for their kids and their parents. Young students will create algorithms and database programs to solve and illustrate solutions to school assignments. Marketing geniuses will have gone from ‘gunning for attention’ to ‘servicing the community’. I call this paradigm ‘Applied Communications’ where visual representation and interactivity is at the hands of everyone (instead of only the Tech Hippies). Not just for everyone to interact with, but to create its functional applications.
If writing is to communication what coding is to programming, then these worlds are bound to collide. Digital is becoming the central medium for communication and just as text editing won’t cut in this new paradigm, neither is written language in claustrophobic Word- or Pages document. No matter how well-written or strong the basic idea is, it won’t be enough for those of us who aspire to be leading professional communicators.
What the older generation of professionals in the communications industry must see is that the digital medium is like no other they’re used to. The challenge is our mental bandwidth, not its technical limitations. Yes, there are ones and zeros and circuits and servers blinking. But just like an amazing novel, the universe of ideas and how they can be conveyed is not constrained to what can be expressed with letters. No, we don’t need to learn how to code. We might not even have to learn how to write. But we do need to get better at communicating.
Realization V: We need to re-learn how to communicate well in a world where digital is the first medium.
For me, who is so profoundly in love with the written word, it’s been difficult to accept that my writing skills in Swedish isn’t cutting it anymore. I’ve worked so hard, just to find myself standing in the middle of a crowd waving a loaded gun around.
The good news is that digital has the potential of unleashing unparalleled depths of our collective professional talents. Digital has interactivity, it has touch, a multitude of beautiful colors and magical sounds. Soon, it will have texture as well. Our screens might still be two-dimensional, but visual representations don’t need to be. And with augmented reality and holographic interfaces, we might soon leave the constraints of screens as well.
It’s still difficult to instantly create visual representations of what you see in your head, but we’re getting there. The tech geeks is leading the way in this creative arms race, but it is up to us to turn opportunity into craft, and craft into art. Much like our greatest writers turned the typewriter and the printing press into the most powerful agents of social and societal change throughout history. Non-technical individuals creating blog posts and videos is only the beginning.
Advertising will morph into Marketing as a Service and Interactive Marketing. PR will be about Community Management. Television and radio will go digital and then social. The lines between the mobile web and the app web will blur, as will the lines between online and offline. We will have second- and third screens before all surfaces becomes interconnected.
A deep understanding of how written communication and communication technologies work won’t be time wasted, but it won’t be enough for the professional aiming at changing the world we live in. We have to become leaders in creating mediums for people to connect and express themselves socially and creatively within.
Therefore, let this be my advice for any professional communicator in the 21st century: Make digital your primary medium for communicating well and start pushing its boundaries. And do it now.