For this week’s post, I chose to conduct a faculty spotlight interview on Kip Soteres. With 20 years of experience in change communication, he has not only made a valuable impact on the field of communication but also on the students he teaches. In this interview, I chose to ask questions regarding both communication as well as his personal interests and how they intertwine:
Q.) One of the first things that struck me was that you are initially from a business background and merged that with a passion for communication. Would you be able to talk about how this combination of business and communication came to be within your professional career and highlight the path that those two disciplines have taken you up to this point in your career?
A.) I actually started my college career as a Creative Writing major and pursued that for about fifteen years. I studied with some very talented poets, received an MFA in poetry, and went to live and write in Athens, Greece. Even then, I was interested in philosophy, especially ethics, and my reading and thinking in those areas have served me well in both business and academic roles. I also had to make a living. So I started teaching English as a Foreign Language. After a short time, I realized that I didn’t like my textbooks, so I asked one of the owners at the language school if I could write my own. My point is that over time I pursued my passions and fed my curiosity. I didn’t have a master plan, or rather – I had several that never came fully to fruition – but the skills I kept learning prepared me for the next opportunity and adventure when the time came.
One way that I think I distinguish myself is a consultant is that I have a deeper appreciation for the strength and beauty of language. Your communication classes don’t always pause to have you listen to FDR’s first fireside chats, for example. Academia is your opportunity to find those prose stylists who write with simplicity and clarity, and who do it with considerable sensitivity to the channels they are writing for and the audiences they are addressing.
Communication theory also gives me a broader-than-average range of lenses that I can use to analyze problems. It’s not like I go to clients and say, “Let’s see how a Kotter change management approach might apply,” or “Let’s see what a Positive Deviance approach will shake loose.” But I have these different tools at my disposal, and that perhaps helps me present a broader and more creative array of options to clients facing tough problems. The reverse is true as well in that I bring my consulting experience to bear on than teaching and advising that I do. I think students value the ways we collaborate to connect the theory and research to life and work.
At its core, language is how humans build our worlds – both the private worlds that we inhabit as individuals and the shared worlds we create in our various social interactions. Through language and because of language, we have the potential to create that world anew every single day, though perhaps too often we choose to live in the same one for extended periods of time. Both in academia and through my consulting practice, I spend the bulk of my time engaging with others to tap into the massive potential that unfolds each day when we open our eyes in the morning.
Q.) How do you see the field of communication expanding in the future? I know that communication is an ever-evolving subject but how do you see it going further in today’s age?
A.) I think it’s going to take a long time for every social science to work through the foundation-shattering evolution of social media. It can take the form of remote work, gamification, learning tools, news feeds, office chat, and file-sharing apps and platforms like Teams, or just straight up evaluations of the dominant channels: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok, etc.
Whatever facet you choose to explore, these tools/apps/platforms amount to an unprecedented power to amplify the best and worst of human networks. Information and disinformation have never been easier to create and disseminate. Our ability to wall ourselves off from disparate perspectives has never been easier. The people working in these spaces and addressing the challenges and opportunities that come with it – that’s going to be very important work with implications that will shape what our society looks like for decades to come.
Q.) You are also involved with creative writing as a personal interest. Being an English major in my undergraduate studies I am always impressed with how writers can convey engaging stories from a variety of platforms. Would you be able to touch on where this love of writing came from and some of the inspiration your published works came from?
A.) My writing is a compulsion. I think it’s important to read and appreciate good writing because that’s how it gets into your bones. That’s a different activity than just reading to lose yourself in the story. It’s learning to take as much conscious pleasure in the evocation of a moment or a feeling, or in the structure of a dramatic twist, as you do in the unfolding narrative. I’d recommend going back to the writing that you most enjoy and ask yourself specifically what it is that you like about it.
So one main source of inspiration for me has always been the writing of others. I notice an effect that moves me or just strikes me as beautiful, and I ask myself what I could write that would let me practice achieving the same effect. That applies to all genres, by the way, including non-fiction. I’ve been very omnivorous in my reading and that reflects the many genres of writing that I’ve attempted – poetry, literary fiction, young adult fiction, fantasy fiction, opera and musical theater librettos, plays, film scripts, etc. For heaven’s sake, I emcee a monthly Opera and art music theory on YouTube each month – Aria412. Check us out on YouTube! Lots of variances and so many great relationships across all of it.
I guess it’s worth mentioning that I don’t think I’m particularly good at it. But in the end, I hope people will largely agree that I brought my best self forward in the effort. In any case, that’s why I started off by saying it’s a compulsion. And I think my lifelong aspiration to be a great creative writer has made me a better person in other respects. It invites me to be empathetic. It encourages a world view that goes beyond mere utility. It helps me to remember that we are here in this life to inspire one another and to promote well being and happiness so far as we are capable.
Q.) Has being an instructor in communication and teaching the subject inversely taught you anything? Of course, there is the old saying that you never stop learning but is there anything that teaching has brought about that you wouldn’t have been exposed to without this experience?
A.) I learn at least as much as my students do every time that I teach. The perspectives of students coming through the graduate programs give me a real sense of where communication is going, where your interests are, what you care about. But with every class, as I do the reading along with you, I also refresh on theories that I’d forgotten about – new approaches to problem-solving. It’s always incredibly energizing. Of course, I’m fortunate to have such a varied life. I get to do my creative writing and participate in communities of the performing arts – my consultancy is thriving – and I get to teach topics that I’m passionate about. I don’t know that I’d be happy doing any one of those activities all of the time. But I’m delighted to be doing them together.
Q.) Finally, what kind of advice would you give to an incoming graduate student or someone who is thinking of continuing their education within the field of communication? Is there anything they should expect or should be prepared to be exposed to?
A.) Be tirelessly curiously throughout your life, but especially now. Use this time as a graduate student to explore ideas and pursue your passions unabashedly. Don’t worry about connecting the dots at first – read as much as you can and engage with each other (even if it’s only through Zoom) to have those intense graduate school conversations that are part of your degree – not just what you do in the classroom or as a part of taking classes.
I also think it’s never been more important to have broad and varied skillsets. In addition to the theory and academic topics that come pretty automatically as part of the curriculum, learn a little about as much as you can about graphic design, HTML, social media metrics, press releases, how to build a good survey, how to write a speech, how to develop a lesson plan or give a presentation. Or get outside the box entirely and interact a little with the other Social Sciences. Whatever you’re learning, challenge yourself to cross-relate it to other topics and to think of ways to put it into practice.
The more disparate items that you pull together, the more flexible you can be in your career choices, and the more likely that you will be able to spot opportunities that take you down fulfilling career paths. I’ve been a learning omnivore all of my life and taking joy in learning for its own sake. I’ve coupled that with a knack for being able to take theories and ideas and apply them for practical impact. Putting those things together has led to a career that I have found to be rich and varied, and it has also expanded my social network in ways that I think go beyond what a lot of people get to experience.
Finally, about a year or two ago I helped Chatham University organize a forum of Internal Communication leaders from major employers in the region. When I asked them what they were looking for in a new hire, they all said the same thing: “We’re looking for people who can write with clarity and sensitivity. In particular, we need communicators who can adapt their writing style and approach depending on the situation, the channel, and the audience.” So don’t neglect your writing and communication skills across all media. It will serve you very well, no matter what you end up deciding to do.
I would like to thank Kip for being able to conduct this interview and be able to share with others his thoughts and experiences. It is always a pleasure being able to work with him, especially this time being out of a class setting. Being able to pick the brain of an academic like like Kip is such a rewarding experience and I hope others get to see the value in an interview such as this. More importantly and to what Kip says, “It will serve you well, no matter what you end up deciding to do.”