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Embracing the benefits of dyslexia and neurodiversity as comms professionals

20 October 2020

Dyslexia is a word we’ve all heard of. We’re all familiar with the term, but do we understand what it really means? As a dyslexic person, I didn’t, not to start with anyway. A lot of us think of dyslexics struggling to read and write, and there’s truth in this of course, but actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that. It’s complex and can affect people in many different ways impacting their work life and how they like to be communicated with.

Roughly one in 10 people in the UK are dyslexic, but there is also a wide range of other cognitive processing traits that affect people. As communicators it is important to recognise these traits and, if like me you have direct experience of one, that understanding of how yourself and others may process things differently, can be a great thing to harness.

Why is it important to talk about dyslexia?

Dyslexia Awareness Month is a great opportunity to talk about dyslexia, share stories and learn more about it, but it’s not just about better understanding the challenges associated with it. There are many benefits and strengths associated with it too – as there are with all neurological differences that mean we process information differently. Specifically, people with dyslexia are often intelligent, intuitive, creative, logical thinkers and have great empathy – all good traits for communications professionals.

I didn’t know I was dyslexic until I was 17. When I was finally diagnosed it was clear there was a strong link with my ability to process information aurally as well as written, hence why I had numerous hearing tests at school prior to my diagnosis.  I remember one teacher commenting that it was like a completely different person was handing my homework in compared to the quiet girl in class who struggled to read the intricate text laid before her. I’ve never forgotten that comment and it made me feel completely misunderstood.

School was a steep learning curve, but there was something liberating when I finally got my diagnosis. Of course, I’m still dyslexic and even now as an adult, I mix up words and people’s names (to my embarrassment), I’m extremely clumsy and my handwriting is quite atrocious (thank goodness for the digital age).

We all get overwhelmed sometimes, but being dyslexic can really add to the pressure and it can be downright exhausting. It can make you feel very anxious and it’s important to talk about this. Being open about our neurological diversity is essential and, as communicators, should be something that we value as it can help us understand how to communicate with others too.

Managing our differences as comms professionals

I accepted some time ago that I’m likely to work longer hours than some people because of my dyslexia. I sometimes work into the night when the world goes quiet and I feel more relaxed. Open-plan offices have their pros and cons, but for me, they’ve always been incredibly challenging. Consider maximising opportunities to work in quieter meeting rooms or from home if you also need quiet to process your thoughts.

I was always good at writing and enjoyed it, but the problem was I wrote pages and pages, which inevitably meant extra editing time. Writing succinctly has been a skill I’ve honed over time and being a press officer has actually been great for this. When you’re writing a press release you have to get to the point straight away and make it very clear to journalists what the story is about. There’s no room for ‘fluff’ or irrelevant information.

I used to dread taking telephone messages (particularly from journalists!) and was always worried I would miss something. So, I learned to always have a notepad and pen or my laptop with me and developed my own version of shorthand, as well as asking people to email me more. If you find it hard to process lots of verbal instructions at once – lists can also be your saviour. I make lists for everything, every day.

If I could turn back the clock and speak to my twenty-something self, I would say stop being afraid and stop apologising. We all need to be confident and ask for what we need to be able to do our jobs well. Remember this is true of other people as well, as they may also have different ways of processing things. Taking the time to understand and cater to this as comms professionals can be a huge bonus when it comes to engaging others with our work.

Discovering your superpowers

I always loved to write and despite my struggles with communication, I’m actually a great people person, which I believe has something to do with my heightened empathic ability (common among dyslexics). My creativity means I’m well-suited to brainstorming PR ideas and my calm and logical way of thinking means handling a crisis doesn’t usually phase me. Just because I struggle to process the information I hear, doesn’t mean I’m not a good listener. On the contrary, I’m actually great at reading people and understanding what they need.

I learned that I have a strong visual memory and I rarely forget a face, which I can use to my advantage. I can remember names, dates and other information in visual sequences I create by association in my mind.  My short-term memory may not always serve me well, but my long-term memory is great. As a dyslexic, you may find you can remember events and details from weeks, months or years ago that others cannot.

When you have dyslexia, you’ll likely find other skills to develop as a consequence. Embrace these and be proud of them.  The most empowering thing you can do is to be fully aware of what you find challenging and not be afraid to tell people.

In truth, we all like to work in different ways, whether we have dyslexia or not, and we all have different strengths and things that we find challenging. It shouldn’t take someone being dyslexic for someone to ask them how they like to be communicated with. It’s something we should all be more open about and we should stop apologising for the things we struggle with. Instead, we should be proud of the attributes that make us great at our jobs and celebrate what makes us different. And isn’t variety surely the essence of any great comms team?

For further reading check out Embrace employee diversity to reap rewards.

Image: Ramón Salinero on Unsplash


Amy Hanson-Reed

PR and marketing consultant, Freelance

Amy Hanson-Reed is a freelance PR and marketing consultant and runs Arctic Comms. She has worked in senior positions for a number of national charities in education, health, social care, crime reduction and community development. She was previously head of press and social media at New Schools Network and head of communications at REAch2 Academy Trust. More recently she headed up the press and events teams at London South Bank University.