Communication is About Instinct: Four Ways Living Abroad Has Brought me Back to the Basics

In PR, it is our mission to essentially transform a message into something that the targeted audience can understand — and then deliver it in the most effective way possible. Beyond the strategizing – beyond knowing how to write an amazing press release, communications plan or research methodology, we must, as individuals, be adaptable, resourceful, creative, intuitive and quick on our feet. I’ve always worked hard to use these skills in the best interest of my clients. But, in Spring 2010, I was given the chance to put these skills to work in my own interest.

When I arrived in France, I didn’t have anything except my suitcases and a few hundred euros. In order to make my way, I had to put into practice everything I knew about communications. I knew immediately that this was going to be harder than any PR ad I’d ever written or any special event I’d planned. But what I didn’t realize is how this adventure would take me back to the basics of communication and remind me that communications is not only an essential profession, but also an instinct that was going to help me through my biggest challenges. Here are four communication basics I’ve re-discovered on this adventure – four basics that are useful whether you’re living abroad or working at your desk.

1)   Be fearless: In PR, we must often take on jobs that scare us. Media relations is a good example: picture the cameras and microphones in your face, being quoted word-for-word; scared to stutter or forget your key messages. Frankly, I found it just as terrifying going to a party in a room full of french people – where I was expected to introduce myself and make a good impression. There was so much I wanted to say but the fear of making a fool of myself paired with the language barrier…yikes! I could see how even the most social person could very quickly choose to close themself off. But in this case, I had a choice to either attempt to communicate or doom myself to be an eternal wallflower. Whether your’re learning a new language or working with a new client, it’s important to take on the people and projects that scare you. And believe it or not – simply being a strong communicator can help us to overcome those fears. For example, in this “party situation”: although I knew my french speaking skills were lacking, I used the comm skills that I already had to socialize. I tried to just simply be personable, inquizzitive and curious; be a good listener. I thought to myself, “Ok, so maybe I can’t speak French very well but I can certainly listen!” And you know what? It turned out that I learned more just by listening than I ever would have with my nose in a book. I let go of the fear and used my communication instincts to “survive.”

2)    Be creative: There are so many ways to talk without speaking. My first roomate here was a young Korean girl named Ha-Na, who didn’t speak French or English. We used to have very long, awkward silences, but that got old awfully quick. We started drawing pictures, using actions and of course, body language. And when we found we had nothing left to “talk” about, we would listen to music, watch videos and find common ground that way. Ha-Na is still one of my dear friends. Though we don’t always communicate conventionally, we communicate creatively. This served as a reminder to me that there are other ways to find commonality with clients, co-workers and the like. Be a true PR pro and use your creativity to find solutions to your toughest communication conundrums.

3) Be curious: I cannot count the number of times I’ve had to ask “pourquoi?” (why?) while learning the french language. Why do you put the adjective here, why do I conjugate the verb this way? Why are there so many meanings for just one word? Sometimes it’s embrassing to ask so many questions, but it’s better in the end to surrender one’s ego and ask what is necessary in order to understand. You don’t understand what your client really wants? You don’t know the real reason why you’re doing something? Ask. Be clear. And don’t forget, you don’t always have to ask other people “why.” You should also ask it of yourself. Sometimes the best answers come from within.

4) Create support systems: I didn’t really know anyone before moving here. As a naturally social person, I somehow found myself networking (like an animal adaptation, I swear!) Unbeknowst to me, I was creating my own support system; I was surrounding myself with people who I liked and who could help and comfort me. When I was homesick or when I was lost — from the small inquiries like, “where’s the best boulangerie around here?” to the big ones, like “How do you recommend I find an apartment?” I had people to go to. How did I form my support system? I did everything from baking cakes to dog sitting; giving free English lessons and inviting elderly ladies over for coffee. But you know, I’d say smiling is the real secret. I mean that.

Sometimes it’s hard to admit that we aren’t strong enough to do something on our own but in my experience here, there is no shame in creating a support system. It’s the same in business. We should seek to associate ourselves with people who will not only treat us as friends and make us feel good but also people who are willing to assist us in finding solutions. It’s amazing what kind of connections you can make and how long they can last if you nurture them.

Though I’ve always considered myself a strong communicator, the experiences of living abroad and learning a new language have been both humbling and eye opening. I’ve been brought back to the basics of good communication and have once again realized that communication is about instinct – instinct that is applicable not only in business, but in our daily lives. So, even if you can’t drop everything tomorrow and move to another country, perhaps the four simple concepts mentioned above will help to refresh your senses and your feelings about the power and omnipresence of communication.

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