Have you heard the one about the journalist with dyslexia? PR agency founder, and dyslexic, Rachel O’Conner explains why having this learning difficulty is no bar to a successful career in the media.
Winning the Made By Dyslexia account gave a name to something my team has been supporting for some 20 years, though perhaps hadn’t quite understood what it was, and that was my dyslexia.
From the late AA Gill to Anderson Cooper, many high-profile names throughout the media industry have dyslexia, which was traditionally thought to impair written communication.
However in her new book, This Is Dyslexia, Kate Griggs argues that it should be embraced as a strength. The book credits dyslexic minds with bringing creative analysis and big-picture thinking to the way that we tell our stories about the world in newspapers and magazines.
As a child, I was never formally diagnosed with dyslexia.
My school reports were very much along the lines of “Rachel is a bright spark but struggles with spelling, basic maths and could always do better academically”. As I moved through A-Levels and applied to university and graduate schemes the disappointment stung.
There was an almost polarising experience of the person people met and interviewed, who was informed and up-to-date on current and world affairs, and then my performance on paper.
Knock-backs received around this time from the BBC, IPC Media and the Civil Service didn’t do much for the confidence of an ambitious, driven and well-informed young woman desperate to hit the media world in London.
What the knock-backs did do was create an understanding that I was monumentally average, and that if I wanted to work in the media world I needed to get creative and think bigger and use the power of disappointment and frustration to fuel my approach more positively.
So began an assault on all the media that influenced my world at that time and the people that had vague connections to it.
This included BBC’s Northeast and Cumbria, Cosmo, BBC Radio 1 and even NME. I wrote to everyone I could find to ask how I could get into the media; many wrote back encouragingly – thank you – but none offered me work.
But eventually the knocking on doors paid off and via a family friend who worked in publishing I was incredibly lucky – post graduation from a London poly – to be offered a work placement at ABC Travel Publications, owners of Travel Weekly, Executive Travel Magazine and other great assets like The Globes, Hotel of the Year and Airline of the Year.
From this early internship I was offered a permanent role in a marketing department, publishing newsletters and hotel rate guides (with number dyslexia this was challenging) and then into a more formal PR role in an insurance multinational.
Having found a way to work near to the media, rather than in it, gave me the confidence and grit to apply to other roles within PR, through boutique PR agencies Weber, WPP, Hill and Knowlton where I ran big multinational clients and thrived on the support, talents, and brilliance around me, until some 20 years ago when I started out on my own.
In the ensuing years, as my agency, Siren, grew and developed, my dyslexia became a constant friend and enemy. It thwarted me when working at pace and without the constant support of more accurate and methodical colleagues prepared to check my, often colourful, spelling.
My Dyslexia did, and still can, cause tensions with those unflinchingly accurate and detail-orientated thinkers who don’t enjoy or ‘get’ my seemingly ‘chaotic’ big-picture and lateral thinking – thinking which, by the way, usually nails the root problem rather than flounces around the edges.
Since working with Kate and her team at Made by Dyslexia I’ve reflected on my own dyslexic career. I appreciate now that I often look at a problem very differently to others, I can quickly assess a client’s situation and I can nearly always see the communication needs that are missing.
I’m able to guide clients well on how to tell the story in the right way, how to embrace all audiences and see their perspective more clearly. I can join the dots and spot the patterns in a client’s business and nearly always be right – eventually I found the thing I really excelled at.
In truth, without my dyslexia, I would not have had the opportunities to promote and protect many of the clients I’ve worked with and, importantly, to work with the media I so hankered after joining all those years ago.
The team around me that has often struggled to understand this skill now has a name for it. They know I am dyslexic and we work together to harness the strengths it brings to the agency. What comms agency doesn’t need more creativity, problem solving and empathy embedded within?
So well done to Kate on the publication of her new book, and of course, I urge any of you reading this to buy and read it. It will help you support and understand dyslexia and the many positive attributes that dyslexic thinking can bring to the workplace today.
Open doors to young people with passion, ambition and fire that want to join this crazy media world, they can help you shape your storytelling and perhaps find new solutions to old problems the industry is grappling with right now.
Thanks to the incredible work that Kate and her charity do every day to consistently champion, devise and create new and better ways to support other people with dyslexia, we are now able to ‘come out’ and not be embarrassed, awkward, or misunderstood and importantly not be written off as just appalling at spelling.
I am Made By Dyslexia and I’m wearing my badge with pride this October for Global Dyslexia Awareness Month.