The seafood course of the Communication Cookout is Cedar-Planked Salmon with Whisky-Maple Glaze. I call this dish my tribute to the flavors of wood. It’s cooked on a cedar plank, which imparts an unusual astringent flavor, and the finishing sauce is made from Jack Daniel’s (which has a strong oak taste) and maple syrup, which has a classic woodsy quality.
The salmon is served on a bed of field greens tossed with toasted walnut oil and roasted pumpkin seeds. Lots of different flavours and textures, but all centred on good old wood. Which brings us to the next analogy: managing your communication career is like tending a fire.
But first a little background. Plank-cooking is based on an ancient aboriginal style of cooking in which fish is fastened to a plank and then leaned over a hardwood fire. In the 1800s oven-planking was adopted by American hotel chefs, and somewhere in the last 50 years or so it has made its way onto the backyard grill.
The basic process is pretty simple: soak a cedar or hardwood plank in water overnight, or at least an hour (this prevents flare-ups), place the plank in a hot covered grill and let it heat up until it starts to crackle and smolder. Place the salmon or whatever else you’re cooking on the plank, turn the heat down to medium, and close the lid. The food cooks gently because it’s protected from direct heat by the plank, and it is infused with the aroma of the wood smoke. Have a spray bottle of water on hand in case you get any flare-ups around the edges of the plank.
When the food is done, you can remove it from the plank or serve it right on the still smoldering board — a spectacular presentation style that’s bound to wow your guests. It’s a simple technique but if it’s not done right, the plank will burst into flames and the salmon will get burnt. Or if the heat’s too low, the plank won’t smolder and you won’t get that unique flavor.
And so it is with your career as a communicator. Early on you have to soak yourself in the knowledge and theories of our profession, which can take years of college or university. Then, as you begin to work in your first job, you have to submit yourself to a lot of heat. Young communicators get thrown into the Kafkaesque nightmare of the corporate world with plenty of wide-eyed idealism about what constitutes good communication, only to have those ideals tempered by stultifying bureaucracy, horrible internal politics, cheapskate accountants, timid managers, creepy human resources people and psychotic CEOs.
During the early period of one’s communication career you see all the warts of your organization more clearly than anyone else — and you have less power than anyone to do anything about them. Then, as your career progresses, the heat gets turned down and you actually start cooking — getting more responsibility, doing more interesting projects, learning how to present a plan and defend it against the cautious bureaucrats — in other words, you start feeling as if you are making a difference.
All along, you have to tend the fire of your career — fuel it with professional development, stoke it with different work assignments, share the heat of your fire with others by volunteering your time with IABC, even change employers now and then to knock off the ashes and freshen the flames.
Finally, as you become a senior communicator, you’re ready to serve up great advice that shows maturity and wisdom. You can exercise creativity tempered by discipline and experience. And you can make a measurable difference to the reputation of your organization.
And, if you’re lucky and you tended the fire properly, your career didn’t fizzle, and you didn’t get burned to a crisp.