Language is the Mother of Thought

Cicero, Kopiezeichnung einer Büste aus London ...
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Right now I’m reading Cleopatra: A Life, which is excellent so far. In it I found this pearl of wisdom handed down from Cicero:

“As reason is the glory of man, so the lamp of reason is eloquence.”

No offense to Cicero — he was clearly no slouch — but that is obviously the traditional view of the role of rhetoric and communications: that it serves mainly to amplify or broadcast ideas. And that notion has persisted for a couple of millennia.

But my biggest client at the PR firm had an approach that flipped this concept on its head. She would always say:

“Communication drives strategy.”

Okay, it’s not as poetic as Roman philosophy, but it says a lot. And it means a few things. She was a strong leader and had the CEO’s ear. He was also particularly receptive to the idea of communications and its value to the organization. Whether she put that bug in his ear or he was already predisposed to it, I don’t know. It’s a whole chicken-or-egg thing.

The point is, the communications department, and she personally, drove a lot of the company’s major initiatives forward. Employee survey data led to changes in the organization. Major events she created, like leadership conferences and town hall meetings, drove the need for management accountability — reporting results in a semi-public forum where there’s no place to hide.

To me, though, in my day-to-day work, it meant that we were integrally involved in the company’s business strategy. Not just in reporting it. Not taking dictation from executives and spitting out speeches. We worked with the executives, in an ongoing, iterative process to articulate the strategy. And that process of putting it in a framework and challenging assumptions had a definite impact on the final strategy that was produced.

In writing the book, I found an old quote that captures this idea even better:

“Language is the mother of thought, not its handmaiden.”

Its source is someone I’d never heard of: Karl Kraus. Who is Karl Kraus? Turns out he was a writer. So not an unbiased source.

Still, I haven’t found anything that better captures the important role of language and writing — and, of course, communicators — in the creative process.

Time to ask for a raise.