What Communicators Can Learn from Cornel West

Whether you love Dr. Cornel West or hate him, agree with his message or not, there’s no denying that the Princeton professor exudes one quality— passion.

The self-proclaimed “bluesman in the life of the mind” weaved together his usual themes of faith, family, philosophy, love and service with discussion of jazz, blues and soul during a sold-out lecture Thursday at the University of Georgia.

His message of the importance of education, and embracing the un-deodorized funk of life while continuing to fight the fight for equality, resonated with the Athens, Ga. audience.  Moving from Socrates and the pursuit of Paideia to Hamlet, N.C.’s jazz great John Coltrane, West’s hour and a half speech and question and answer session covered a lot of ground and topics.  Too much to adequately recap here and do justice to the talk.

While the modern day philosopher dispensed much knowledge and offered much intellectual fodder to ponder, there are at least two lessons I took away that have relevance for the fields of communication. The two points that students and practitioners of journalism and communication should heed when practicing their crafts are passion and delivery.

The two are related and feed one another.  Dr. West conveys passion for his subject matter with every word he speaks.  He speaks rhythmically, methodically and at times in rapid fire.  He gets fired up from time to time, depending on the topic.  There’s no denying the enthusiasm for what he talks about.  He truly believes every word he says.  With Dr. West, you get the sense that he’s driven by a calling to lecture, write, speak and teach.  He loves what he does and you can tell it. You get the sense that the man could talk for hours, regardless of the audience.  Don’t believe it? Watch Asra Taylor’s excellent documentary, The Examined Life in which Dr. West spends 15 minutes  comparing philosophy to jazz and the blues while riding in a taxi weaving through the streets of Manhattan.

Communicators should channel their own Dr. West when choosing topics to cover, areas to specialize in or even the careers they pick.  I give my journalism students flexibility in choosing what beats they cover for their beat blogs because I want them to write about and follow a subject they are interested in.  Passion flows through their writing when they find the subject matter compelling.  You can’t fake passion.  Passion fuels excellence.

When you’re passionate about what you do, you convey that passion through your words and actions.  This is where the second point comes in. Delivery.  Sometimes what you say can be lost in how you say it.  Your message can be lost when you fail to adequately deliver it.  If you deliver a tired, boring message don’t expect it to resonate.  If you can’t muster excitement for your subject matter, why would you expect your audience to do so?

Again, Dr. West is masterful here.  Whether it’s standing in front of a podium delivering a lecture before a university crowd, preaching before the pews in a Baptist church or sitting in a taxi in Manhattan, West is a dynamic personality who captivates your attention.  You get the sense that West can hold court and be comfortable in just about any setting, from the barrios to the boardrooms.

Whether it’s a wave of an arm, the stomp of a foot or the tenor and reflection in his voice, Dr. West gets his points across.

Dr. West delivers passion.  Communicators should do the same.

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