How to deal with those communication ‘dabblers’

Everyone might think they could do your job, but could they do it well? Here’s how to establish your authority among skeptical colleagues who know less than they think.

Comms dabblers

It’s not easy working a job that everyone thinks they could do.

Of course, anyone can communicate, but few can do it well.

Seth Godin, in a post titled “Nobody dabbles at dentistry,” writes:

“It’s difficult to find your footing when you’re a logo designer, a comedian or a project manager. Because these are gigs that many people think they can do, at least a little bit.”

This smacks of the perennial gripe we communicators have: Everyone thinks they can “do communications.” Obviously, there are many communication functions that our non-comms colleagues could do quite well. Problems arise when those without communication skills, savvy, training and experience decide to ignore good advice—or when they try to “dabble” a bit too much.

Here are three common interactions with rogue “dabblers” that might sound familiar:

1. “Can I help with that video?” Non-comms people just like to do the fun, non-threatening stuff. Dabblers will appear out of nowhere to provide “artistic direction” for leaflets or videos, but they’ll want nothing to do with a media enquiry, setting up a town hall, responding to a crisis or creating a communication budget. The next time someone tries to give you unsolicited email design advice, ask for their help with the next round of employee surveys.

2. “Media training? Oh, I don’t need that, I’m a natural.” How often have you heard that sentiment from haughty executive-types? Of course, they are almost always the people who need it most. Usually, one mortifying public speaking fiasco is all it takes for dabblers to get wise on media training and preparation.

3. “We’ve decided to organize a school competition to design our new logo.” Did you now? I’m sure it will be lovely.

Anyone can communicate online, right? Organizations are finding out the hard way, every day, it seems.

Plenty of people are “social media savvy,” but it takes a talented communicator to handle crises with aplomb. It takes a steady, confident hand to respond to an avalanche of criticism, and it takes a meticulous approach to avoid trouble in the first place.

Unfortunately, social media has added to the belief that “anyone can do communications.” Everyone’s already doing it on their own time, so what’s the big deal?

Familiarity does not equal expertise, and social media savvy does not make someone a trusted, professional communicator.

What Seth says

What are communicators to do? The best advice, according to Godin, is to be great at what you do:

“If you’re doing one of these non-dentist jobs, the best approach is to be extraordinarily good at it. So much better than an amateur that there’s really no room for discussion. You don’t have to justify yourself. Your work justifies you.”

What’s the best way to be great? For starters, do less.

Most of us have these massive to-do lists that prevent us from producing our best work. The fewer ancillary projects you have to fuss and fret over, the more time you’ll have to crank out masterworks that put your dabbling colleagues in their place.

Key questions for greater efficiency

Consider: How much of your to-do list is a genuine organizational priority? How much of it is work that will have a substantive impact and deliver measurable benefits? Surely there’s something you can cut from your pile.

Shedding busywork is a great first step toward producing better, more meaningful results. If you’re constantly drowning in dull tasks, you’ll never rise above mediocrity. You’ll never become a trusted confidante, agenda setter or internal linchpin.

Planning is a crucial part of this. If you want to inspire more confidence, create a coherent strategy. Write it down, and use it to ward off all the silly requests for non-priority work that will never go away until you learn to say “no.” Create parameters and procedures that will slow down the barrage of ancillary requests.

Of course, you could just get that dabbling bloke in HR or IT to fulfill all those non-priority job requests if he’s so keen to be a communicator.

Darren Caveney is creator of comms2point0 and owner of Creative Communicators Ltd. A version of this post first appeared on comms2point0.

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