Skills we are in danger of losing
About the author
Anne Nicholls is a CIPR Chartered Practitioner and a freelance PR consultant specialising in education and skills.
In the last series of BBC’s The Apprentice one of the tasks was to locate and purchase a number of objects in the city of Brighton. All contestants were given a map to follow, but not allowed access to the internet or mobile phones. All fine and dandy. But one hapless woman piped up saying, “I can’t read maps.” After a brief Oprah Winfrey moment when I yelled “Whaaaat” at the TV, that got me thinking. How many of us professional communicators have become so reliant on digital technology that we’ve lost some of the essential skills needed to do the job properly?
We are surrounded by gizmos that will do research for us, come up with new ideas and even (now that we have ChatGPT) write perfectly acceptable text. Maybe map reading isn’t an essential skill for PRs, but isn’t it all about spatial awareness, problem solving and seeing the bigger picture instead of simply adopting a tramlines approach? And skills like memorising and visualising maps can develop new pathways in the brain. A London taxi driver who’s done The Knowledge is simple proof.
These are the five skills that I think we are in danger of losing. I was tempted to ask ChatGPT the question but waited until I had written the piece. Not surprisingly the AI bot came up with a similar list, but stumbled when I asked it one pertinent question. (All will be revealed later.)
- Reading. A pal of mine who has just become a teaching assistant was gob smacked when she gave a book to a seven-year-old who immediately tried to swipe it with his finger. Apparently he had never actually opened a book before and thought it was a tablet device. Books and newspapers may be old hat as increasingly people are getting their news and info online, particularly Generation Z. But the danger is that we skim through text on screen and lose the ability to really absorb information. We need to retain the ability to concentrate on ‘deep reading’, as it activates certain areas of the brain that are responsible for memory, forges new connections between neurons, encourages critical thinking and gives us a good mental workout. If you are studying for a PR qualification you will need to read books, absorb complex information and flex this muscle.
- My mother, who grew up in a world without computers or electronic typewriters, had the most beautiful handwriting that looked like a professional calligrapher. Regrettably, after decades relying on the keyboard, my writing is an illegible scrawl. But it’s not just the art of handwriting with all the accompanying motor skills that we are in danger of losing. Now that ChatGPT is producing text faster than we can blink, could we lose the ability to write altogether? Hopefully not, as to date ChatGPT lacks the flair that create real quality text. If you ask it to write a press release or a blog it will come up with a result in seconds but you will need to add your own personality and check facts carefully. These are skills that we need to keep alive.
- When I was at school we had to learn times tables. After ten tens are 100 I get stuck, whereas my cousin can tell me instantly what 13 times 22 is in his head. Of course, we all have calculators now, but they have made us lazy. So has the internet, as we can find answers to almost anything online. What impact has this had on our memory? The jury’s out on this question. There is some evidence that using the internet extensively may have a detrimental impact on the brain regions associated with memory, but more research is needed. Learning by rote may have gone out of fashion (When was the last time you recited a poem by heart?) unless you are an actor, but as professional communicators we need to be able to think on our feet and retrieve information from the hidden corners of our brains without having to use Google. Memorising information is a great way to flex those brain cells. Keep doing it.
- During the pandemic we got used to communicating remotely through emails, WhatsApp and Zoom, which were life savers. But along with smart phones and easy access to information, this may have produced a generation of young people who shy away from face-to-face communication or find it hard to just chat over the phone. When I started in the PR business some 30 years ago we sent out press releases by post or fax (yes, really) and then engaged in a process called “selling in” which meant picking up the phone and actually talking to journalists. The world has since changed and most don’t like being rung up by PRs wanting to sell them stories, preferring email. The convention of taking journalists out to lunch has also gone by the wayside. But along with it I fear that we (particularly Generation Z) are losing the ability to communicate with people eyeball to eyeball. My message is get out there, network and start engaging with people again.
- Self reliance. The internet means that we no longer have to dive into libraries or call people on the phone to find information. That makes life so much easier but maybe it’s made us less self reliant as we can get answers to problems instantly, even if they are from a bot. When I was a features writer on a magazine looking for case studies back in the 1990s I had to come up with ideas and find people to interview – all without access to the internet as it wasn’t available then. That required some initiative, lateral thinking and plain leg work. For one feature I had to find a couple who had tied the knot on the same day as the late Queen and Prince Phillip. I wrote and posted letters (yes really), cold called people on the phone and made a trip to Somerset House which housed all the births, marriages and deaths certificates. I was curious to find out whether ChatGPT could provide that information so I asked it. This was the answer: “As of my last knowledge update in September 2021, Queen Elizabeth II was alive. Therefore, I cannot provide information about events that occurred after that date. If Queen Elizabeth II has passed away and there are couples who married on the same day and year as her, I recommend checking official sources, news articles, or online databases for the most up-to-date information.” Point made, I hope.
The message is use whatever tools are available to you but don’t let them take over the essential skills you need as professional communicators – the ability to write with imagination and flair, to come up with new ideas, to think on your feet and to trust your own judgement.