Recording #72:

Beth Stallwood     00:00:00 > 00:01:51
Welcome to the WorkJoy Jam podcast. I'm your host, Beth Stallwood and today I am joined by Felicity Cowie. Felicity is a consultant who works in the area of communications, helping organisations to work with the media to get their messaging right, to be able to have effective communication. Yet her career history is really interesting. She worked in newsrooms and in newspapers as a journalist for many years and that kind of high-speed, high-energy ability to communicate quickly and accurately has really driven her throughout her career. I really enjoyed this conversation where we touched on things like what that atmosphere is like, the highs, the lows, the challenges of being in those newsrooms, and what are some of the things that organisations can do to help be better at this challenge, which causes a lot of work gloom for a lot of people around their communications. I really hope you enjoy this conversation.

Welcome to the WorkJoy Jam podcast. I am delighted today to be joined by Felicity Cowie for our conversation. But rather than me introduce you, Felicity, can I hand over to you? Can you tell us who you are, what you do, and maybe also a little bit of your career story? How did you get to where you are today?

Felicity Cowie 00:01:51 - 00:03:35
Hi Beth. Yes. My name is Felicity Cowie. I'm a communications trainer and a consultant and I've been doing that for about 10-12 years, helping businesses communicate about what they do in lots of different ways, but a lot of it is around how they communicate with stakeholders and the public via the media, so how they work with journalists. The reason that I think that they use me for that is because I used to be a journalist, so I know how journalists and newsrooms think and I can bring that kind of awareness into what the business wants to do and help them navigate that sometimes quite complicated landscape. When I was very young, I knew just for as far back as I can remember, that I wanted to write and I wanted to story tell. Even at a very young age I was conscious that if I wanted to spend my life doing that, I was going to have to find a way of making money to do it. So that is how I became a journalist because it seemed like, okay, great, I could get to write and I'll get paid for it. So I started working as a journalist in local papers and then eventually I worked for the BBC, for all its major news outlets, primarily the BBC News Channel and then for Panorama, and then, I crossed the floor, as it were and now I help businesses not just work with journalists, but sometimes use the skills that journalists have to communicate really rapidly to find out what their headlines are and to engage other people quite quickly in what they're doing.

Beth Stallwood 00:03:35 - 00:03:43
Amazing. Thank you so much for sharing your story. There are so many things that I'm interested in. I'm going to ask you loads of questions about, if that's all right.

Felicity Cowie 00:03:43 - 00:03:44
Yeah, great!

Beth Stallwood 00:03:44 - 00:04:14
Brilliant. So thinking about this space of knowing when you're really young what it is you want to do, and I find that people tend to fit into a couple of categories here. They either have absolute clarity that they want to write and story tell or they have absolutely no idea and they follow a path to find out. So knowing so specifically that you wanted to write and you wanted to story tell, how did you get into that world of being able to be in a newsroom, being able to be a journalist?

Felicity Cowie 00:04:14 - 00:06:02
I think, again, from a really early age, I was always, writing stuff. I remember my Mum was doing an evening class to do some secretarial work, and she brought home this little blue typewriter which had all the keys covered because she was obviously learning touch typing, I guess. And between about the age of 5 and 7, because I can remember the house that we were in, I was completely obsessed with this typewriter. I put my hands on it all the time. I was, trying to type stuff. I don't know if it's like some kind of weird past life thing or something, but the reaction to anything to do with writing has always been very strong in me and I've worked as a journalist, but I've written fiction as well. I've done songwriting and stuff in Nashville. I think I just have this, I don't know what it is, like a curiosity or kind of a vocation to just jump in and give things a go. So with journalism, it's not so much that I thought I would be a journalist. I mean, I've got friends who, from a very young age were very clear they wanted to do that again. For me, it was the writing thing, I was writing stuff and I was submitting it to comics and things like Letter of the Week or whatever and I think when I saw my name in print, that was also another very exciting kind of feeling. And so I then started working for local newspapers when I was at school, but then when I was a student as well. So by the time I was graduating from an English Literature degree, I actually had done quite a lot of stuff so that helped me get a job at a local paper, in fact, a traineeship. They sponsored me and trained me and everything. It was an amazing opportunity and once I was in with that, that kind of opened all sorts of doors.

Beth Stallwood 00:06:02 - 00:06:18
Amazing. So actually, taking it and doing it alongside your study and not waiting to finish and then go and find it, allowed that path to be maybe a little bit smoother than for people who finish a degree and try and find somewhere to go.

Felicity Cowie 00:06:18 - 00:06:59
Yeah, that did work for me, but I think in some ways there was an awful lot of luck involved in it, because I remember when I was a student in Canterbury, I worked in a clothes shop and my job all day was just folding up clothes. It was so boring, as you would imagine, and then by complete luck, the local paper back at home in Wiltshire, which I had done bits of free work for, just written little stories ever since I'd been at school, they kind of said to me, looking back at it now, their reporter was obviously quite junior, but to me he seemed, like, really old. They said he was going to Glastonbury for 10 days and would you mind covering for him?

Beth Stallwood 00:07:01 - 00:07:03
They're probably thinking, oh there's someone cheap here that we can get involved.

Felicity Cowie 00:07:03 - 00:07:09
They said they’d pay me, I think it was like 35 pounds a day, but back in the mid 90 s, I was like, oh not bad!

Felicity Cowie 00:07:10 - 00:08:31
Yeah, so I ditched the jumper folding job without a moment's hesitation, I went back home and I did this job for ten days, got the money. There were things like that where I put myself in a position where that could happen, but, I mean, that was slightly lucky, I think. Then I was supervised by people who were in another office, but I just wandered around the town finding things to write about and wrote stories to fill up the pages of the local newspaper. Then of course my name was all over it then. I did think, then, gosh, that was fun, and oh journalism is not a well paid profession, and especially not in a local newspaper role so it's not like you think, great, I've hit on a way of earning a lot of money. Actually for young people now, with the cost of a degree and stuff like that, it is a difficult profession I think, to hit decent money straight off. I was very fortunate in that because I'm in my late 40s, that I actually had a free university education and so I was able to leave without any debt and start off in a fairly low paid but perfect job for me.

Beth Stallwood 00:08:32 - 00:09:00
I think that's an interesting thing, isn't it, as well, about how careers are now versus how careers started previously and how difficult it can be right now. But I also love what you're talking about there, about luck and so much of it is putting yourself in the right position and hoping some stuff will happen and allowing that stuff to happen. You could have said, oh no, I need to continue my job folding clothes, folding jumpers. I do have a very important question for you. Does this mean you're now really excellent at folding your clothes?!

Felicity Cowie 00:09:00 - 00:09:07
Actually, it does. It's a thing I learned when I was about, I don't know, 18 or something and these things really stick in your brain, don't they? I will sort of fold up jumpers really quickly and I'll look at them in a shop sometimes and think I think, no, walk away.

Beth Stallwood 00:09:17 - 00:09:44
It's so funny. One of my first jobs was in a Clarks shoe shop fitting kids shoes and I did it for quite a long time while I was a student and the other day I was with my friend and her son and we went to shopping and she was like, Beth, just tell me, do these shoes fit? And I was like, okay. I haven't done this for 20 years, but it's still there. I still know exactly how to do it. I still know all the codes for the computer system. And I’m like - why is that in my brain but why can't I find my glasses? I don't understand.

Felicity Cowie 00:09:45 - 00:10:48
It is very true. Like, those early skills get very hardwired into us, I suppose, don't they? I do feel very blessed that that happened to me with not the jumper folding so much, although that is useful, but with journalism, because I think that very early on and very consistently for my whole working life there's been a kind of constant kind of use of that muscle of writing, thinking about words. I do actually find writing quite hard. I do find it a bit like a Rubik's Cube, trying to solve it and get everything in the right order to work. But I think I am lucky that the patterns for that were laid quite young, I suppose, in my mind. So I have quite a lot to draw on. I feel like that does give me confidence when I go into quite new and difficult situations. I've got quite a wealth of skills that I've repeated over and over and over again in lots of circumstances to fall back on.

Beth Stallwood 00:10:48 - 00:11:07
Getting deep into the skill and starting early with it and building it means it's really well there. Can I talk to you a little bit about the newsroom side of life and when you moved into that? Tell me, how did you go from transitioning from the writing world into the news world?

Felicity Cowie 00:11:08 - 00:13:28
I suppose it was the training course. So when I was offered this job with the local paper in Kent Messenger Group in Canterbury when I was a student it was really quite an amazing opportunity. It was a two year job and the first 20 weeks of that first half of the year, were based in a training centre, learning all of these journalism skills. It was a really difficult course and at the time it was nicknamed the SAS of newspaper journalism. A lot of quite well known journalists ahead of me had done it. So it was a good course, but, oh my gosh, it was very hard. I think that probably was the main bridge that took me from one thing to the other. And it was funny as well starting working in a newsroom because I'd gone there straight from university and it was like unlearning everything because it was about, write short, don't write long. The word counts were all much shorter than for essays and things like that. I wasn't very good, I have to say, I really struggled a lot in the first few months of being at the paper and on the training course. It was very fast paced and I think I was poorly for a week in the middle and I was always struggling to catch up and stuff like that. But I do think that I was very lucky that I was taught by a lot of people who made a lot of effort to teach me and I wanted to learn, so I think that probably stood me in good stead. One of the lessons that they taught us on day one was about asking six questions. Journalists ask you six questions all the time, which is the who, what, why, where, when and how. And it's the thing that's taught in law enforcement as well, Aristotle wrote about it and I think there's a Kipling poem, so it's not like it's specific to journalism, but it's so crucial to the training of how you do stuff. I did find that has stuck to this day and I use that with clients all the time. That provided a bit of a safety net for me so when I would sort of feel really daunted by what I was doing, I would remember that and I'd start trying to ask the questions and unpacking the information with those questions and that would kind of give me a bit of confidence and east me into writing a bit.

Beth Stallwood 00:13:28 - 00:14:23
I ask those questions to people all the time as well. I think they're so important for not just accepting things as they are, but understanding motivation, understanding what's going on at a deeper level, being able to move past it. So, I totally get why that would be helpful in many different situations.

Talk to me a little bit about when you moved into the BBC, looking at News 24, working on Panorama. I've got in my head, probably what a fictional TV show has taught me about that kind of newsroom side of things, and I imagine fast paced, hard work, really tough deadlines, trying to get stuff done, trying to make things as good as they can be. Talk to us a little bit about the environment there because I find it really fascinating.

Felicity Cowie 00:14:23 - 00:15:10
I mean, that is true. So when I went to work for the BBC in Southampton, which was quite a large room, it was a regional newsroom so it was smaller. I was only there for maybe I think about a year to 14 months and then I went to work for the main BBC Newsroom, which at the time was in the Television Centre. Now it's not, it's in New Broadcasting House You sort of opened the door and it was just like really noisy, like loads of chat and stuff like that and there's a ton of going off all the time with breaking news and announcements and things like this. And it was really a very busy environment, as you would imagine in the daytime, but there could be times where it was very quiet and it was all shift work as well so there were some times where you're sitting there and you're thinking, god an hour is a long time.

Beth Stallwood 00:15:12 - 00:15:14
And is there actually any news to report?

Felicity Cowie 00:15:15 - 00:17:45
Yeah, and I'd be like, writing the summaries for the radio bulletins for the top of each hour because I started in Radio and then I did stuff in telly and actually in the BBC, you do a mixture of both. They'd gone through a bit of a drive to help skill people in both areas. So sometimes you would be writing the bulletin and then you'd read it and then you'd always sort of tweak it around a bit and then you'd be ready for the next hour, but and then if nothing happened, you’d tweak it again. So there were downtimes and stuff like that, which I think is fair to share, but then they were good as well because you're always in quite big teams of people, so I always found it very interesting to see what other people were doing. And I think, again, it's the writing obsession. So when I first worked at Television Centre I think I was probably the most junior person in the whole newsroom. I had definitely the lowest of the low role there and I’d sit there on the desk, but everybody else on the desk was writing the bulletins for Radio 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 as it was back then, and then maybe 2 meters away from me on the other side of this aisle was the whole 06:00 News Team. Hugh Edwards is sitting there like he would, ball of energy kind of thing, and would be typing away and chatting and writing everything. So I was completely surrounded by people who were real masters at what they were doing, doing it for different outlets, all this writing going on. So it was an amazing atmosphere to be in, to learn stuff. On News 24 or the BBC News Channel, as it's now called, in some ways you do have deadlines because you obviously have the headlines at the top of the hour and the half headlines at the half hour and the weather and things like that, but if a big story breaks, it's almost like you're always on deadline then, because it's the race to deliver the story as accurately and as quickly as possible. So you almost end up in this kind of permanent state of deadline, I suppose, which, could be extremely intense and especially when I worked on some quite big stories that broke on say, Sundays or Boxing Day or something like that, where we had less smaller teams, so you really did have to kind of ramp up what you were doing very quickly in those circumstances.

Beth Stallwood 00:17:45 - 00:18:16
It's really interesting you talk about that journey through being the most junior person in the newsroom. But there's something there, isn't there, about how you learn from the people around you and how you pick up on how to do stuff through learning osmosis. It's like you're just watching people and seeing how they're doing stuff and reading other people's ways of writing. That must have been a really intense education as well as an intense period of working and always having to be really on it.

Felicity Cowie 00:18:16 - 00:19:22
Yes, it was I suppose but I did like it because I do think I liked seeing how quickly things turned into reality, as it were, if that makes sense. So a story would break and it would be like, right, how are we going to cover this? And you'd be draft, you'd be thinking and writing, thinking through writing, I suppose, and I quite liked that. I like doing that myself anyway. But it was just amazing to watch some other people doing that and the speed at which they would do it. I mean, I have to say having left journalism and then gone into loads of other places and worked in the corporate world and all that, I do think it is actually quite almost superhuman their ability. For journalists to communicate with each other and how rapidly they can get to the heart of something, turn it into just shorthand bullet points so that they can get each other up to speed, and then how they then turn that into very engaging content for audiences. I mean, it happens about 100 times faster than anywhere else I think I've ever worked.

Beth Stallwood 00:19:22 - 00:19:39
I'm thinking about that speed and having the need to be both speedy and accurate. In my head, I can be really quick, but I'm not sure how brilliant I would be or if I could be really accurate then I'm not sure how speedy I can be. The combination of those factors together is something a bit special.

Felicity Cowie 00:19:40 - 00:21:08
It is. It is genuinely difficult and a lot of organisations that I have worked with or supported through, say, training and development stuff, they'll have as part of their five corporate values - be fast, be accurate, will be in amongst them - they're not news organisations. They maybe deliver data or or publish some sort of stuff and it's actually very hard to do both. Having them as two corporate values, there's a balance between the two, and sometimes you have to sacrifice one to meet the other. As a journalist, it was always the BBC News 24 we would have in the gallery, where we would be outputting the program, there would be loads and loads of television screens on all the time and on the other screens would be all the other news channels. So Sky would be there, ITV had a 24 hours news channel, international news channels as well. So you'd be in the gallery looking at what you were putting out, but you'd also be looking at what other channels were doing and if they were breaking stuff ahead of you or had got something ahead of you that was a source of deep consternation. So there was a pressure there, but then this is maybe unfair on other broadcasters, but I think there was a real pressure on the BBC. There is a big pressure on the BBC to be accurate, perhaps slightly more than perhaps some other broadcasters. So for the BBC to report something incorrectly and wrong seems to be more of a crime than for other broadcasters to make that mistake and then say, oh, no, sorry, we jumped the gun there a bit.

Beth Stallwood 00:21:08 - 00:21:47
I'm thinking about this environment because I'm always thinking about where's the place where people get their joy from at work and for me, that all sounds super exciting. Like the pressure, I'd love it, and you've got to get it done and then it's on the telly and you can see the results of your work really quick, instant results. It's like pressure washing a patio. You can see what's happening immediately. I am delighted by it. But I'm also thinking, we think about different environments for different people. That environment would just be horrific for somebody else. And the pressure and the kind of having to do it all at speed and lots of people doing different things and taking in all this information, for some people that would be the worst.

Felicity Cowie 00:21:48 - 00:23:22
Yeah, I know and also, you're not always the same person. I mean, some days I would just find the whole thing quite daunting and other days I would be really up for it. There were some stories as well that were really hard to cover, so that would start to have an impact on you as well and some of the big stories. I covered the 7/7 bombings in London as that was breaking and sort of all the way through. That was a very difficult day. And I also covered the Boxing Day tsunami, back in I think it was in 2004 as it turned into 2005. And that was just days and days of reporting and that was very challenging indeed. And it was challenging for everybody, even seasoned correspondents who had worked for the BBC for years. Some of them weren't wanting to take a moment before they went on air with their reports and stuff like that. And you're also bombarded with pictures from news agencies all around the world, which don't get put on national television, but there's this stuff around you. So it's without a doubt a very challenging environment to work in. And it's just an office. You're not out there, but you're working in that environment and dealing with all of that. It is hard, without a doubt. And I don't want to glamorize it because you can look back on it and think, gosh, it was amazing doing all of that, but there certainly were times it was very difficult for all of us. And because you have to keep going, because you've got all this air to fill all the time.

Beth Stallwood 00:23:24 - 00:23:27
We couldn't be bothered. We went for an extra coffee.

Felicity Cowie 00:23:28 - 00:24:33
I think that journalists have this thing in common and it's just not true I don't think in other organisations, this kind of deadline thing of you can't have dead air or like an empty page. So there is this common mission or goal to get this done. So because of that, you really have to dig in and just get on with stuff. So, it’s without a doubt a very challenging environment to work in. But talking more about the joy of it, I think for me, the writing with other people and getting those words out together, matching pictures to the words or words to the pictures. There was something that I did find joy in, even when it was a difficult story. In fact, sometimes, especially then, because you want to really get it right. The way you're breaking this for people and they're seeing it in their home, it did feel that putting that all together as a group of people did feel very meaningful to me. And I was very proud to be part of all of that.

Beth Stallwood 00:24:33 - 00:24:57
I love this because I always talk about the fact that you don't get work joy 100% of the time. You said there are days when you go in and it's like oh, I'm not sure about that. There are really tough days like being exposed to the toughest parts of the human experience and being there, I imagine, are the greatest moments in time as well and it sounds like a job where you have the full range of human emotion almost every day going on.

Felicity Cowie 00:24:58 - 00:26:27
Yeah, so it's all a bit larger than life, I suppose as well because it is literally all amplified, I think as well. I know that when I've done stories with people who work in emergency services or whatever there is a kind of sense of humour as well around it all which I think you can find sort of connections with people in this rather strange environment that are quite meaningful. I mean, even now I'll meet up with people that I worked with 20 years ago and we'll remember something that happened and that we made a mistake or did something, whatever, I don't know and we'll both be rolling around the floor laughing some of it was so funny. I think the teamwork thing there just seemed to me very strong, because the only way you can actually make anything happen is working as a team. To some extent, working in a newspaper, you just need your notepad and your pencil. You go around, you interview somebody, you can get the interview and that's kind of on you, then obviously you need the rest of people to help get it into a newspaper. But with television, even just getting the interview together involves quite a team of people. Especially if it's live so I think that working together, the sense of achievement and achieving things was very high.

Beth Stallwood 00:26:27 - 00:26:55
I'm really interested what you said about writing together. You've come from this writing background and you've always had it there. I am definitely on the talking side and have learnt to be the writer later on. I'm fascinated and I'm going to go and think about this more, but I never think about writing as a team activity. I think about writing as a real solo activity and one that I kind of have to sit down and get on with.

Felicity Cowie 00:26:55 - 00:28:17
Yeah, I think that's really interesting. I've worked with quite a lot of people who've got a real fear of writing. As I said I'm in my late 40s and it maybe is different now but I think that when I went through school it was like you're a words person or a numbers person and a lot of people who lead businesses identify as numbers people because it is quite a common route to be, say, a chief finance officer and then you become a chief exec. And I have worked with some chief execs or leaders of organisations who are very dyslexic as well and that maybe wasn't diagnosed at school for lots of reasons. They can be really very worried about the whole idea of writing and just want to kind of get a consultant in to do it and then give it to them. But I can't do that because the ideas are in your head and we need to get them out and then we can pretty them up whatever with the writing. But they're coming out of your head. It has to come from you and you're going to have to find a way - that's just the way it is as a human. You're going to have to find a way of putting that into words because that's the only way that we're going to understand it. I've worked with Chief Execs who will say to me that they're getting frustrated with their teams and maybe their transformation project isn't happening as quickly as they like. And they'll say it's all very clear in my head. I know but the thing is that the difficulty is in your head.

Beth Stallwood 00:28:17 - 00:28:18
Nobody can be in there with you.

Felicity Cowie 00:28:18 - 00:29:34
No. And then the next thing they'll sometimes say is well there's the PowerPoint. And it’ll be hidden in some drive that nobody's used for about five years and it's always 67 slides long. This is just not going to cut it and nobody's going to read this. And even if they did, it's far too open to interpretation. I have worked with people a lot to I think that is a barrier that they have, this very deep seated fear of words, of writing and this sense of massive discomfort when asked to put their thoughts into words, even though they may be very, very good at talking. It's really strange - it's not that they're not good at talking I think it's just that skill of converting ideas into words and then being able to share them with people is actually quite a mysterious process really when you think. If you read a book and you're just looking at some marks on a bit of paper with some ink and you're crying or laughing, I mean that's just sort of wild, isn't it, really?

Beth Stallwood 00:29:34 - 00:30:55
We've gone very philosophical into that particular place, What even is writing? Does it even exist? Is it a real thing? I'm really interested in this. I think it's really interesting, When it comes to work joy and work loom, a lot of work loom, a lot of the stuff that comes out time and time again in people's engagement surveys and organisations is the communications around here aren't good enough. That is probably if I were to add it up over the last 20 years and all of the different engagement things I've seen from lots of different organisations, it probably comes top three every single time about communications and people don't think they get enough, people think they get too much. It's the wrong media, it's the wrong message, and it's a really hard thing to get right. I was just reflecting when you were talking there about trying to get things out of people's heads and into dots on a piece of paper and then into a message that makes sense to other people, not how it makes sense in your head. Just because it makes sense in my head doesn't mean if I tell you, it will make sense in yours.

Felicity Cowie 00:30:55 - 00:32:01
No, exactly. It's massively undervalued how complicated that is, I think. People almost feel embarrassed that they can't be articulate because we all read and consume news and we watch drama and everything, and, headlines are very snappy, but headlines are really hard to write. I would be allocated just the headline writing job on some of the shifts I did, and I wouldn't write the stories. I would be given the stories that have been done by somebody else. I would just extract the headlines from them. And it's true on newspapers, there's different levels of sub editors who will put the headline but if you're a chief executive of an organisation or you're the founder of your own business, people are really hard on themselves. They just expect, because they have that role and they speak fluent in one language that they should therefore be very articulate instantly in that language and think on their feet. It's sort of a crazy, crazy pressure. I mean, I just don't think we would apply that to the business accounts or something like that. You wouldn't expect something to drop them perfectly without studying them and giving them some thought.

Beth Stallwood 00:32:03 - 00:32:07
Oh, you've never done accounts before. Here you go. Here's the profit and loss. Tell us what we should do with the business.

Felicity Cowie 00:32:07 - 00:34:38
I think as humans we maybe don't respect communication, how complicated it is and how bizarre it is and then certainly in the world of stuff needs to get done and I need people to hear it and do it my way that all goes completely by the wayside. Actually, one of the reasons I crossed the floor from being a journalist to go and to do what I do now was because especially at Panorama, we would do investigations and it would result in these big exposes about losses of money or businesses or lives even. And almost always when there was an enquiry or whatever happened afterwards, the business would cite communication failure. Huge reasons why this whole thing had snowballed and how somebody hadn't told somebody something from the beginning and I would sit there and I would feel like a mixture of pride that we shone a light on a problem that was obviously needed to be sorted out. But I also felt increasingly uncomfortable that I was complicit in why people don't speak up because they're so afraid that they're going to end up on Panorama. The irony of this is that we as journalists are all sitting around quite comfortably saying to each other, I don't know the answer to that, I'll have to go and find that out. We weren't covering up what we didn't know. I thought we should take these skills into some of these companies, help them before they get to the point where their whole business model has gone completely askew, their customers are all very ill or whatever is happening. So that was sort of what I was hoping to achieve which was to go and help people take some of these communication skills and see if there was a way that I could go into organisations and take the principles of journalism. Like, here's the six questions. Do you have answers to all six questions? If not, that's okay, but how are you going to go and find the answers to them and just keep that at front of mind in the organisation on a project or something all the time? And so I've worked that way quite a lot with people so that they can gain clarity on their own thinking and then share it in a clear way.

Beth Stallwood 00:34:38 - 00:35:37
I love the way you called it word using as well because it's not just writing, is it? It's all of the other things that are involved in word using. It doesn't sound as exciting word using, but we'll go with it is this idea that we have to get clarity first. But so many people, in fact, almost everyone I speak to, is so overwhelmed with the day to day doing of business, with getting stuff done, with trying to make things happen that actually, clarity takes a lot of effort, I think, to get clarity, to make things simple, to be able to narrow it down to three most important bullet points. Whatever it is you want to do, that stuff takes effort and energy and some engagement and some time to really get to it. So it's no wonder we end up with communication failure in businesses being the things where everything went wrong.

Felicity Cowie 00:35:38 - 00:36:35
I think that's true. I think what's your top line approach or your philosophy or something? What I teach people is this saying, I'm not really sure where I picked this up, but I think I read it somewhere years ago is clear is kind. To communicate clearly takes a lot of work and courage and it isn't just the gifted few who can communicate clearly. It's this commitment, I think, to the work it takes and the the courage to say stuff, I don't know, can we make this clearer? I don't understand that. And all these things are very, very hard to say. And I think the other huge difficulty that we have in the corporate world is that communication is seen as a linear process where there's some unpacking done, some thinking done and then it's turned into some messages and then they're rolled out and then everybody goes, oh yeah, okay. And it's almost seen as sort of an end to end process, like a download, like a transfer of information.

Beth Stallwood 00:36:36 - 00:36:38
We've done that now, we can tick that off the project now.

Felicity Cowie 00:36:38 - 00:37:38
The KPIs will be to get all stakeholders understanding the three key messages or something like that, which is an admirable starting point, don't get me wrong, but that really isn't communication is not linear. I think information is alive and when you work in, say, a breaking news environment, you're really aware of that. So you'll get the rumble of something has happened somewhere and you'll start to report that, and then more facts will come in and more and more and all the time, really, you're getting new information. You're sort of testing it. You're trying to turn it into clear understanding of what is happening. And then the more information you put out, the more it attracts more back in. And then you're sort of doing the process all over again. And I think the thought of that for some people just seems so overwhelming on top of the day job like that, oh, I'm not even going to be able to tick this off my list and just constantly engage and reengage with people just feels very like a mammoth task, doesn't it?

Beth Stallwood 00:37:38 - 00:38:17
And not one that has the nice results either, not one that has the I've achieved this particular thing because it's so ongoing and so undefinable and I love what you said, that it's alive, it's like things are coming in and out of it all the time and you can't really nail it down to anything. So I totally get that and I'm sitting here thinking as well, communication at the heart of businesses is actually how businesses work or don't work or fail and all of this kind of stuff. Yet how much effort and investment do we put into training, supporting, enabling people to properly communicate in our organisations?

Felicity Cowie 00:38:17 - 00:38:19
I mean, obviously I would say not.

Beth Stallwood 00:38:19 - 00:38:24
Enough, but you can come to you and you can help with that particular one.

Felicity Cowie 00:38:25 - 00:39:57
But I would say that I think as well, what I really struggle to understand, and I think journalism versus corporate world is how complicated the corporate world can make stuff. So in the desire to make it simple, it's just so overcomplicated. And I think the thing that in journalism is that I suppose what happens is everybody there is taught, like, fundamentals of communication, like ask these six questions, have a meeting, go around the room, who knows what, we don't know, move on, find out. It's very, very structured and I suppose it is quite hierarchical as well. I mean, you do have the editor there who's ultimately taking decisions with the team, but there is ultimately a final decision maker which probably speeds things up slightly as well. But I do find I was astonished when I moved into the corporate world and people would be running around as if it was a breaking news story and it was literally the day of their strategy relaunch and it had been in their own diaries for a year. It is all totally in their own control, but the level of panic and stress was equivalent to a huge news story breaking. And I found that very surprising. But I think the reason for that is there is possibly not this common training in group communication and so people are doing all of these things without the skills, which is sort of mad really, isn't it?

Beth Stallwood 00:40:00 - 00:40:49
Strongly agree and I'm just sitting here thinking about all the organisations I've worked with, I've worked for, and thinking about how it's always a problem that's trying to be solved without understanding that the problem actually could be solved right at the beginning, it could be solved earlier, but it gets lost. You're right amongst the complexity of all the other stuff that's going on and amongst the kind of size, whereas maybe the hierarchy in a newsroom is quite small and you can walk up to the editor who makes the final decision. That person in a hierarchy could be 20 steps away from the person who does it and not able to communicate directly with that human because it has to go through 20 levels of other people signing off before it gets there. So I think some of that size makes a difference as well.

Felicity Cowie 00:40:49 - 00:42:48
I think it does. And I think also the other thing is, like in breaking news, all news environments, there's an on air team and an off air team, but there's the same people but at different times of the day. So I would turn up at the start of my shift at News 24 at, say, 11:00 a.m on the morning, because that was a shift that I did quite a lot. And for the first chunk of that shift, I would be in the off air team. So we would be planning what we were going to be doing when we were on air, and then we would then go on air at 03:00 or something like that, and then come in, and then they would be doing the prep and they would take over and so there was this constant process of time to prepare, time to get handovers from other people, time to just get the lay of the land, of what's already going on, what's already being reported. What could we bring new to this? And I don't think the corporate world just isn't structured like that. It's like every team is in its own way is sort of a frontline team in terms of delivery. They're always meant to deliver what they do there isn't the I'm on the first half of the shift, so I'm going to be seeing where things are going, how we can take them further and then you do it the second half. And I suppose as well, we had an accountability for that because it was out once we were live on air, we couldn't have just faffed around. And like I said, there's always this terrifying thing of, what if we have nothing to put on the telly? So it does create a strictness there. But I do think there are things from that model which really could be which I try to bring into what I do in the corporate world. And I can see that they work because people are productive, but they are allowed. There's different kinds of productivity and I think that's more acceptable.

Beth Stallwood 00:42:49 - 00:43:22
Honestly, we could go into this in so much detail, but I'm going to have to get us onto our quickfire questions, otherwise people are probably like, we don't want to listen to a two hour podcast. You just talked about it being concise and simple and kind of really easy and you've done 2 hours on it. We will not do that. We will follow our own rules. I've got some quick fire questions for you. Are you ready? Okay. Question number one for you personally. What is always guaranteed to bring you a little bit of work joy?

Felicity Cowie 00:43:22 - 00:44:10
Well, I've mentioned this before, but I really think it's when somebody says to me, I don't know or I feel I can say that I feel like, oh great, I'm in a really interesting, dynamic environment now with this happening. If I'm new in a role and somebody says to me, I don't know, I feel like they trust me or trust me enough to be able to say that kind of thing. So I take that as a cue to start problem solving together and an invitation, I think and I just like the honesty and the creativity of all of that. But also I think it's very efficient to say that. So I hear that and it kind of like brings a bit of a smile to my face, I think. Okay, great, this is where we are. Let's jump into this and I think that's just I would so much rather have that than sit in a meeting for hours where nobody's saying that.

Beth Stallwood 00:44:10 - 00:44:18
But everyone knows that everyone else doesn't know and everyone's pretending that everyone knows and you're just going round and round in circles like on a carousel, round again, round again.

Felicity Cowie 00:44:18 - 00:45:26
I worked for a really massive client once and I was doing this with somebody else as well and I really admired my co trainer, because we had been booked and paid quite a lot of money to deliver a day of training and we got to 2:00, I think we were supposed to train until four and my co trainer said, okay, well, that brings us to what we were going to teach you. So now we've got 2 hours. What do you want? What is coming out for you that you don't know, that you want to learn, whatever and the guy who was the chief executive, this massive organisation was, well, I think what you've pointed out to us is a huge thing that we just don't know in this business. Oh my God. And the guy was like, so think what we'll do is we'll leave it there because we need to go and sort this all out. But thank you so much for having the honesty and helping us see this it was just, honestly, it was amazing. Afterwards I thought it would have been a lot easier for us to have just felt more comfortable, ignoring what they didn't know, as it were. So I felt very proud of that and I thought if you can do it at that level, then you can do it anywhere.

Beth Stallwood 00:45:26 - 00:45:55
It does take some courage, doesn't it? In the world of trying to be impressive or whatever it is you're trying to be, being able to say that stuff is really important. But the minute someone says, I don't know, that's an invitation to do something about it, right? It's not a, I know why dont you just carry on, it's a, let's try and do something differently. How do we get the message across differently? What do we do with it? So I love that. That's great. I'm going to say, whenever I talk to you, I'm just going to say, I don't know, and just see where the conversation goes. And you'll be like, oh, thanks for giving me some joy today.

Felicity Cowie 00:45:55 - 00:45:59
Well, a friend of mine says that I do, I sort of say, oh, I don't know, like, loads of times.

Beth Stallwood 00:46:00 - 00:46:03
And they're all like, you're not bringing me work, joy, because you're just saying.

Felicity Cowie 00:46:03 - 00:46:25
I don't know, what do you know? But I think it's an invitation to collaboration. I think there's an honesty and I think it's refreshing. And I can see when I'm in stuff, I can see that starting to open up. The whole shoulders go down. Everybody calms down. Time seems a better pace. It's just a very good moment, I think.

Beth Stallwood 00:46:25 - 00:46:30
Yeah, love that. Right, question number two, what book are you currently reading?

Felicity Cowie 00:46:30 - 00:46:33
So this is going to sound wildly self promotional.

Beth Stallwood 00:46:35 - 00:46:37
Feel free, feel free.

Felicity Cowie 00:46:38 - 00:47:50
I published a book a year ago called Exposure, but much to my delight and surprise, I have to say it's been translated into Chinese. I didn't know that this was happening or that I was going to get this book so quickly. It just kind of appeared on the doormat last week, I think it was, and I can't speak or write Chinese at all, so I'm leafing through this book, just thinking how utterly fascinating that this is like a book I've written. I have no idea how it correlates some friends who were in the Acknowledgments said to me, oh, are we still in it? So I leaped to the back and, yes, it's in Chinese characters, traditional characters, but then it's got, their names written in brackets, because I guess, I don't know. So I was like, yeah, you're still in there. So they were pleased about that. But as I was leafing through the book, I was thinking, how intriguing it that. And I don't understand this, some words are in brackets and maybe it's because they're nouns, or not proper nouns, but are still in the English as well, so I can find my way through it. But as I was leafing through it one day, I really laughed because one of the words in it is tequila. Obviously quite random.

Beth Stallwood 00:47:54 - 00:48:03
I’m going to go quite philosophical back to our thing about dots on a page. Dots on a page that are your words, but you have no idea what they are.

Felicity Cowie 00:48:03 - 00:48:33
Yes. I mean, this is what I really want to go learn what some of this is now, because yes, it's completely amazing, isn't it? Yes. It's just another system for conveying this information or this energy, isn't it? I think one of the Apollo astronauts said that. He said information is energy and I thought, oh, my gosh, that's fascinating. Yes. I've been rather mesmerized by my own book in translation.

Beth Stallwood 00:48:34 - 00:48:58
I love it. No one has ever, on this question, talked about their own book. And I'm like, there have been a lot of authors, you are the first, so you get an award for being the first to go read my book in Chinese. Love it. Question three, what is one bit of advice that somebody has given you in your lifetime that you always find yourself coming back to?

Felicity Cowie 00:48:59 - 00:49:23
I think the best advice I was ever given was on day one of journalism school which was ask these six questions, - who, what, why, where, when and how. The teacher who taught it to me called them the six cones of investigation and I've Googled this and that's nobody else's phrase, so it must have been what he came up with but I think his idea being that each question is like a cone, and you ask it and you lift it up and the answers underneath it.

Beth Stallwood 00:49:23 - 00:49:27
Oh, okay. Yeah. I was thinking, how does cone relate to this?

Felicity Cowie 00:49:27 - 00:50:21
Eldis Huxley he was but I think it's that it's a cone, and then underneath it, you pick it up and reveal who something is or what they are or whatever, and oh, my gosh, that lesson, that advice has helped me so much. When I started as a journalist, I really was so overwhelmed by all the words, actually, and all the how do I organize this information? And I teach this almost all the time with every client. No matter what we're doing, I'll do this, can you describe your project or your business or whatever? Answer these six questions in around 50 words. Can you get it that beautiful. But if you can get it like that, you're really onto a winner. Because humans, for every reason we're programmed, we just really want answers to these six questions as quickly as possible. So the more you can do that, the more engaging you are.

Beth Stallwood 00:50:21 - 00:50:38
And these six questions are amazing. I think they're brilliant. I loved the addition there that you said, like, in 50 words or less, and it doesn't have to be beautiful. The things I've struggled with in my life is like, I want the words to be perfect. The minute they come out of my head onto a piece of paper. And it doesn't work like that.

Felicity Cowie 00:50:38 - 00:51:56
No, it doesn't at all. I'm sure about this year I was kind of saying to people, don't worry about what it's like, just get it out. Any old mess, who cares if it's duplicated? It really doesn't have to be pretty, it just needs to be answers to these questions and crunch it down into about 50 words. Don't go into the details, don't go too high level because we need something satisfying in our brains. And then just go and find a copywriter or somebody and get them to pretty up. Don't get too attached to that. It's the treasure of what's under these cones is what matters. But now, actually, with stuff like Chat GPT or whatever, in fact, you could just plug your stuff into these things and then get some nice versions back. And I think, well, great, if that helps people get over this barrier and help them just get their key information out, then I think that that's invaluable. When I was a journalist, people who could not tell me what their business or their story was and answer those questions quickly, I just could not engage with them and so I saw it in a very brutal light, I suppose. But I do see people who have phenomenally good businesses and good ideas and they really need to get that sorted out because otherwise people just don't get it and they can't build momentum and attract what they need to grow their business.

Beth Stallwood 00:51:57 - 00:52:17
Love that. And those questions are amazing. Definitely work on those. Right, question for you. Question number four is what is one super practical bit of advice that you think our listeners could go away and do today, tomorrow, the next day, whenever they feel like it, that might bring them a little bit more work joy in their lives.

Felicity Cowie 00:52:17 - 00:53:55
So I suppose it's related to what I've just said. If you’re listening to this and you're thinking, I've got this project and it's just not moving fast enough, people just aren't getting it. Or we've got our strategy day coming, or whatever it is, or maybe you're new at a job and you really want to make an impact early on when you have those first key meetings with everybody, then I think my advice would be is just sit there on your own with whatever you've got, like paper or iPad or whatever, and just think answers to those questions. Who are you? Which is obviously quite easy. That's your name or the name of your project, and then that's the beginning of your story, your 50 words. And then maybe think of the end of your story, which is kind of coming back to that. Who but it's like a website or where to check. So you're taking the pressure off yourself. You're not having to go into whole details, you're just saying, this is what it is, this is where you find out more. And in the middle of that, try and answer these other five questions as short as possible and then give yourself the permission to practice that if you're going to be speaking it, or just start using it consistently when you're writing stuff down about your project. Because the more people hear something, the more they trust it. So if you're consistently introducing yourself in the same way or your project in the same way, and even if you're saying, I'm sure we all know what this is, but let's just give you a quick reminder, it's this. People find that deeply comforting. And so I think that can be a way out of an impasse that you may have in your work, is to just crunch that all down for yourself and then start using that and seeing if that helps energize what you're doing a bit more.

Beth Stallwood 00:53:55 - 00:54:12
So you can use it on other people, you can use it for yourself, you can use it and have something there that evolves over time and you develop it when you're getting things done or need to move things. I really love that. It's a great bit of advice. And finally, my question for you is where can people find more about you and your work?

Felicity Cowie 00:54:13 - 00:54:52
I’ve got a website which is, and that has everything on there about the work that I do and stuff that I offer. And it's got free advice as well about communications. It has a blog that I am a bit inconsistent about, but it's there. Interviews and videos and things like that. So there's free tools there and then there's information about how the software, the book and then the software if you want to work with me. So, yeah, people can find out everything.

Beth Stallwood 00:54:53 - 00:55:03
Brilliant. We'll put that in the show notes as well, so people can click straight on through. Felicity, thank you so much for being a guest today and for such a wonderful conversation. I have really enjoyed it.

Felicity Cowie 00:55:03 - 00:55:05
Yeah, so have I. Thank you so much, Beth. It's been brilliant.

Beth Stallwood 00:55:07 - 00:56:39
Thank you for listening to the Work Joy Jam podcast and a huge thank you to Felicity for joining me and talking all about her career history, some of the things that have really helped her, some of the learning, some of the difficult stuff, the challenges, as well as the successes. Thank you, Felicity.

There are lots of different things that I am thinking about from this conversation and that I am going to be really concentrating on after this and the first one is about how writing can be a team sport and I've always thought of it as a very solo thing. So I'm going to think about how I might bring more of that team aspect, more people into the game of writing for me. And the other one is about this idea that communication isn't a linear process. It's alive, it's living, it's something that is constantly changing and updating itself and therefore trying to treat any kind of communication like a linear process might not get us the best results. Thanks again, Felicity, for joining us. Do remember that there are many other episodes. Go and pick and mix some of the Workjoy Jam podcast episodes from the last six series that you might be interested in. And do sign up for my freebies. They're on the website There's one which is all about tracking and understanding where you get your work joy from. It's called Workjoy: Where Do You Get Yours? And the other is if you're feeling a bit meh about your job right now, Workjoy: How To Fall Back In Love With Your Job. Thanks so much for listening. I'll see you again next time.

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