Thinking Creatively About Communications

As a teaching fellow of leadership communications this summer, my responsibilities also included delivering a weekly TED-type talk to the various workshop classes. While preparing my teaching materials prior to departing for the trip, I realized how much of my instruction, while also shaped by my grad school education, was actually developed from my training as a musician. As such, I decided to craft my talk around one particular communication theme - the value of non-verbal communications - and concluded the talk by sharing a short piece on my flute. What I’ve written below is an amalgamation of those summer talks; instead of my own flute performance at the end (I unfortunately don't have a video from this summer!), I’m instead linking to a wonderfully musical performance of the same piece performed by one of the preeminent flutists of this generation, Emmanuel Pahud.


I’m a twin. I’m a musician. And I’ve worked as a non-profit administrator for the past 14 years.

These three statements directly contribute to the foundation of my interest in communications. This is a topic that was a central theme of my graduate studies at Harvard, and it’s something I’m increasingly aware of and spend more time thinking about every day. Let me explain.

I’m often asked - what’s it like being a twin? - to which I don’t really know how to respond. I don’t know any other way! My twin sister, Sarah, is my only sibling. She’s my best friend. And she knows more about me than I think I know about myself sometimes. We aren’t identical - I’m six inches taller and she has bright blonde hair. She’s also much louder, wittier, and more outspoken than I am. Because of that, I let her speak for both of us when we were younger. Growing up in a very small town in Iowa, we were always together and doing similar things. Though we each have our own identities, people always referred to us as the Roberts’ twins. I didn’t realize the impact that had on me until I was 20 years old. Only a few years before, we went our separate ways for the first time ever. We both went to college for music study, me in Rochester, NY, and Sarah at the University of Michigan. She came to visit during our second year of college. During that visit while walking down the mail hallway of school, one of my friends stopped me and asked - who is that (referring to my twin)?  For the first time in my life, I realized that people knew me for me, not as a Roberts twin. 

This realization also spurred another series of thoughts - I do have my own voice, and I can communicate for myself. My sister wasn't next to me as she had been for the past 18 years, speaking for the both of us (or so I felt). It was a realization that each individual person has our own voice. And - more importantly - we each have a choice for how we want to use, or not use, our voices. This may be such a simple thought, yet for some reason, it was astonishing to my 20-year-old self. 

I later realized that instead of talking, I listened. I was curious, asking questions of people, and I genuinely enjoyed listening to answers and stories. I enjoyed trying to find the meaning behind words. and tried to better develop my perceptions and understanding of people by watching actions and movements that might give me deeper insight into someone’s thoughts, feelings, and words. This type of non-verbal communication skill was an invaluable asset to my development as a musician.

One of the most memorable learning moments in my musical upbringing occurred when I was a senior in college and was selected to participate in an orchestra festival at Carnegie Hall. Of course, the venue was like none other. But the real learning came in collaboration with my peers, reflective of the musical experiences we all had during school. We worked together in sectionals, and worked together with the conductor. Yes, there were verbal cues and directions given. Perhaps it was because of the event, venue, or location, yet it was during this experience where I started to focus in and more deeply understand the value of non-verbal communications.

In an orchestra, one is continually watching the conductor, the leader of the ensemble. Yet any good ensemble goes well beyond just watching a conductor. The ensemble members intuitively watch one another. The violinists watch the concertmaster, the cellists watch the first chair cellist, and so on - each member interpreting the music through the conductor and through the section leader. As an orchestra musician, we develop a keen sense of watching one another - watching the conductor’s baton to stay together, watching the movements of our colleagues, including the subtleties of when someone takes a breath. As a wind player, the core members of the wind sections - flute, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon - sit two by two, side by side. I’m not able to see the clarinet and bassoon behind me. Nor am I able to see the horns, trumpets, trombones, percussionists. Instead, I must listen. If I have something to play with them and wait for the sound, I’ll be late. Instead, I have to listen for their breathing, and through anticipating their sounds and actions. If you watch any great orchestra, I find that it's comparable to a living, breathing organism that moves as one. This experience at Carnegie Hall left a tremendous impression on me - not just for playing on that stage, but for beginning to deeply understand the importance of watching and listening as a central piece in communicating, with or without music.

So - you might be asking - what do these stories of having my own voice and listening have to do with leadership? 


Leaders often focus on how they can motivate others. Or on how they can achieve their goal and get others to help along the way. Yet I ask you take a moment to reflect on a leader who you thought was exceptional. Was it because he or she could speak well? Was it because he or she had a great vision? Or was it because that individual had the capacity to listen deeply and truly care about the people that were helping everyone to achieve in the goal? I argue that the latter is one of the most important aspects of communicating effectively.

I’ve worked on the administrative team of a number of non-profits. In the past two positions with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and New England Conservatory (NEC), my position has worked across the organization to engage multiple constituencies. While there are countless examples within these organizations of how insight and attention to non-verbal communications have been a positive contributor towards planning outcomes, the one example I'll share today focuses on the development of the program I lead at NEC. The Entrepreneurial Musicianship (EM) Department was a program I was hired to create, and the first of its kind among music schools. Upon arriving in Boston, I had ten months for research and development to build the plans to implement the EM program. I met with over 350 individuals - faculty, staff, alumni, students, trustees, and other professionals - during those 10 months, in an effort to better learn how this kind of program could be supported within the oldest conservatory in North America. While there was tremendous excitement around the program, there was also trepidation - would this program distract from a student's practice time? Will this program take students away from the classes necessary for a well-rounded musical education? These two questions only scratch the surface of the multitude of other unknown answers during those ten months - yet during each meeting, I listened to the hopes and dreams that people shared for NEC students, just as I listened to the same person's fears and worst-case-scenarios about what this new, unknown EM program might become. Aside from the words being spoken, the individual actions helped to tell a bigger picture - was eye contact being made, or were eyes being diverted elsewhere when difficult topics were brought up? Were hands resting calmly throughout the conversation, or were they nervously fiddling with pens? Were shoulders and/or body movements tense and anxious, or were the individuals' body language showing confidence and encouragement surrounding the possibilities of this program? Through truly listening and paying attention to these non-verbal communication signals, I was able to genuinely respond during these meetings, as well as better understand how I might follow-up in individualized ways to continue discussions and planning that was meaningful to each person who shared time. Above all else, the shared goal in every meeting was to provide the best education for students at NEC. By sharing this goal with my new colleagues, then listening and observing beyond words in every dialogue, the core elements of trust, mutual respect, and shared work was developed ... and still remains at the basis of the work we strive to achieve within EM.

Some people might describe this type of communication as emotional intelligence, yet I argue that this type of understanding reaches beyond this label. Leaders that truly care, leaders that deeply listen, and leaders that balance achieving a vision with helping others succeed build a skill set of creative communications that disrupts the typical leadership standard. The ability to watch people and begin to understand the meanings behind tense shoulders, shallow breathing, or nervous mannerisms will help a leader better understand the overall message that one is attempting to communicate. The ability for a leader to truly set aside his/her own thoughts to instead listen to the words of another can provide a window into a fuller understanding of the meaning and motivations behind an individual’s statement. And - most importantly - the ability to use all of one's senses when communicating with another provides the opportunity for reflection, analysis, and deeper understanding, all in an effort towards supporting creative leadership. 

To conclude, I’d like to share a piece of music with you. This particular piece, Syrinx, is by Claude Debussy. It’s a piece of music that is meant to illustrate a short story. In Syrinx, Debussy uses notes to portray his depiction of a Greek God, Pan, that falls in love and chases a nymph, Syrinx. Syrinx didn’t like the advances of the Pan, and in fleeing his advances, turned herself into reeds by the waterfront. In Pan's desperation to find her, he cut down the water reeds to make his pan flute pipes, unknowingly killing Syrinx.

To guide your listening, here are a few moments of the story to listen for:

0:52 - you’ll hear increasing intensity, almost like Pan chasing Syrinx
1:06 - this passage always had me imagining images of running throughout the countryside, perhaps passing by a waterfall
1:39 - this is one of my favorite moments in music, with the color changes and dynamic contrast; it’s always reminded me of a flower blooming, or a sun’s ray uncovering a shadowed part of the countryside
2:10 - you’ll again hear the intensity building in this part, representing Pan's desperation to find Syrinx
2:44 - on this held note, I imagine this is where Pan cuts down the reeds, killing Syrinx 

I invite you to relax and enjoy the story of Syrinx, as you reflect on how non-verbal communications could contribute to your own leadership potential.