Brit discovers communication in a post-truth world

I never considered myself passionate about the humanities.

But after eliminating everything I suck at (it’s a long list), I all but fell into it.

Your options are significantly restricted when your brain can’t comprehend basic math, the human body makes you squeamish, and you have the physical prowess of a baby giraffe.

But I’d always been a decent writer. That can happen when you’re raised by an English teacher.

Anyone who grew up like I did – with their head forever buried in books – almost certainly tried their hand at writing, like their favourite authors. That was the childhood dream; to be the next J.K. Rowling. To create a world so alluring that readers would put aside their own realities for a taste of your imagination.

But becoming a full-time author and having financial security aren’t commonly associated with each other. My desire to afford copious amounts of takeout and have a roof over my head (yes, in that order) formed a dark cloud over my childhood aspirations.

So what career paths existed where someone would pay me to write engaging stories?

Enter the Bachelor of Communication.

“What actually is a communication degree?”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been stung with that question, I’d have already paid off my HECS debt.

Having now arrived at the long-anticipated conclusion of my degree, the new owner of the most expensive hat I have ever worn, I feel I am well and truly qualified to answer that question.

If you were to Google the various communication degrees offered by Australian universities, you’ll find that they all offer different majors. At UQ I chose between majoring in Digital Media or Public Relations. But at another university I could’ve majored in Writing and Publishing, Journalism, or Media Production. That’s one of my favourite things about a communication degree. It can be whatever you make of it.

But there is a common theme between all these majors.

They’re all about storytelling, one of the most underestimated skills there is.

Storytelling is essential to humanity. It’s how we relate to and engage with others.

Storytelling is everywhere.

When you scroll through Facebook, you’re reading – often grammatically incoherent – stories that make up fragments of your online friends’ lives.

When you listen to your favourite podcast or song, or binge watch an entire TV series on Netflix, you’re engaging with creatively produced stories.

When your new employer sits you down to watch an induction video about the company’s mission and values, you are being presented with the (heavily curated) story of your new workplace.

Or when a police officer pulls you over for making an illegal U-turn, and you tell them how you just realised you left the oven on and need to get home before your house burns down – you’re telling a big old lie story.

Done well, storytelling can be a powerful tool to curate an identity, engage with a community, or get away with unlawful driving manoeuvres. But just like Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility.

I could be alone on this, but I do think we abuse our power to communicate.

There’s a lot of content out there – a lot of communication and storytelling. Maybe too much. Our world is noisy and buzzes incessantly with the sound of competing voices all trying to gain our attention. But not all communication is created equal.

In my first semester at UQ, I came across this nugget of wisdom, courtesy of a course called Media and Society:

“The capacity to circulate information is only meaningful if the content we circulate is accurate, credible or constructive.”

That doesn’t mean that everything we say or share should only consist of indisputable facts void of emotion. But it does suggest that the value of our ability to communicate is significantly diminished if we fail to use it in a constructive way.

It’s like any resource. If it can be sourced easily and in abundance, we are often wasteful; consuming it in quantities that may not be sustainable. But if that resource is suddenly restricted, we think twice before consuming it. We save it up for something important, or maybe we even give it to someone more in need than ourselves.

Quality over quantity. Perhaps that is the takeaway. But communication is a renewable resource. So what does it matter how much of it we waste on poor quality content?

Sociologist Manuel Castells knows the answer:

“The fundamental battle being fought in society is the battle over the minds of the people. The way people think determines the fate of norms and values on which societies are constructed.”

If we are constantly exposed to poor quality content – stories that aren’t accurate, or credible, or constructive in some form – then we are not fostering the best version of the society that we could be. If our minds are predominantly filled with #fakenews and photoshop, then we aren’t practicing values of honesty, integrity and acceptance that could promote stronger and more inclusive communities.

This is what my degree has taught me to be passionate about.

Storytelling that encourages us to be better.

Storytelling that values quality over quantity.

Storytelling that harnesses its power to influence people without abusing it.

In every story I see a challenge to make it relatable or thought provoking to as many people as possible. Why? Well, what’s the point of living our lives inside a bubble that’s been sound-proofed by our own limited experiences and ideologies? What’s the point of surrounding ourselves with other humans if we don’t understand them? If they don’t challenge us or inspire us to believe that we are capable of more than mundane jobs, collecting material items and paying tax?

So it turns out I am passionate about the humanities. I’m passionate about people. But it took studying in the field to figure this out.

For anyone else studying communication, I hope you also discover your own purpose for the degree. You’ve elected to follow a road that branches into many paths, so it won’t always be easy to succinctly articulate what you are studying, where this will take you, or even where you want to go. There’s nothing wrong with this. Find comfort in the fact that your degree will open a variety of doors, and remember there’s no requirement to step through them all at once.

~ Brittany Hawkins