All of us in this room today have goals that we are pursuing. Some of us want to be broadcasters and journalists, some may want to be public relations specialists, some may want a career in advertising, some of us have goals of becoming better students, and some here who are teachers like myself may have the goal of becoming a better professor. In addition to professional goals, we have personal goals – we want to better sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, and better friends to each other. We want to be better persons.
Communication is a means to an end, and effective communication will by definition be a more effective means to whatever end it is that we are pursuing. Good communication helps us to more effectively attain both our professional and personal goals in life. As students of communication, you are fortunate. You have an advantage over many other persons because you are studying the most effective means and methods of communication that are available to us in the world today. If you study communications well, you have an opportunity to literally be some of the most effective communicators on earth. I say that with all seriousness and without exaggeration. The skills and knowledge you are learning are helping you to be more effective communicators than the vast majority of people on the planet. You are becoming your generation’s professional communicators.
As professional communicators you will be able to more effectively reach your own goals in life, and you will also be able to help others to more effectively reach their goals as well. In fact, as professional communicators, many of you will actually be paid money to help other people reach goals that are important to them. This can be a significant and even beautiful contribution to the lives of other people and your community.
Given that all of you are digital natives, unlike people in my generation who are digital immigrants, you will have tremendous abilities to use a wide array of communication methods and techniques that were only the dreams of past generations. With your expertise and the means of communication available to you, the potential of the global reach and the global impact that you will have with your communication expertise can be truly significant and even world changing.
Given the potential of the impact you can make with your communication abilities, I hope that you will recognize that with your skills and expertise in communication comes profound responsibility. Since you will be some of the most effective communicators of your generation, the goals and values for which you are communicating and the methods you use to communicate them matter deeply.
If you communicate in ways that express the values of integrity, truth, and the well being of others; your communication expertise can be a force of tremendous good in your communities and in the world. If you clearly recognize your obligations of doing no harm to others, caring for and respecting the most vulnerable among us in our societies, and living on earth in ways that are sustainable and responsible for future generations; your communication expertise can contribute to solving some of the greatest challenges facing us all in the 21st Century. As the best communicators of your generation, you have a profound responsibility to use your gifts and abilities for the common good of all life.
There is, however, potential for effective communicators to also do great harm through propaganda, coercion, manipulation, and the pursuit of goals that perpetuate systems and practices that are not good for us as a human family. Unfortunately, your expertise will be in high demand by those who want to use communication in ways that are not beneficial for the entire human family or for the world in which we live. Given this demand for your communication expertise by those who would use it to perpetuate their own power and control in this world, you have the potential to make significant amounts of money selling your expertise for these pernicious enterprises. You could likely get fairly wealthy in the process, but your integrity and the well being of your communities and the world would be poorer as a result of your choice. This is, I would argue, the most important moral decision that you will have to make in your professional careers.
Effective communication can lead to more effective attainment of our goals, but if our goals are not good goals, if our goals and values have deep moral flaws, then effective communication unfortunately has the potential of bringing great harm to our world.
As I reflect on the power of communication to influence social change in our world, it leads me to think of two of the most effective communicators of the 20th Century. Both of these persons were described as master orators. Both were able to mesmerize the crowds who heard them. When they spoke, those in the crowd would often react with spontaneous applause and cheers, crying out loud their support of what was being said. Both of these extremely effective communicators were able to motivate millions of persons to work for a different kind of future for their societies and for humanity. At the height of their influence, both of these communicators would sometimes speak to tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people in the crowd.
One of these two great communicators of the 20th Century of whom I am thinking was Martin Luther King, Jr. who used his amazing communication skills to inspire a generation and a society towards greater civil rights for all people. His words and actions continue to inspire billions of people all over the world to work for peace, human rights, and social justice. He won the Nobel Peace Prize, and in the United States, highways and byways and even a holiday are named in his honor.
You may be asking, who is the other extremely effective communicator of the 20th Century of whom I thinking. His name was Adolf Hitler…. I think you get the point.
The choices we have for how we use our communication abilities will likely never be as stark as the difference between King and Hitler, but we all will have moral choices that will make a profound difference for reaching the goals and expressing the values that are of vital importance for our human community and for the ecological community of which we are all a part. Your communication expertise comes with profound responsibility, and I hope you will use it wisely.