Universities rarely present a lifetime achievement award to a 32-year-old software architect. On Friday, Webster University presented its 2009 Person of the Year award to Jack Dorsey, the chairman and co-founder of Twitter. Dorsey shared brilliant insights on communication and leadership.
“This work has inspired and distilled three concepts that I have dedicated my life to and to which I love,” Dorsey told an audience of more than a thousand people at the Loretto-Hilton Center.
The three concepts: Immediacy, transparency and approachability. The concepts, in this progressive order, provide a glimpse into the future of how organizations will communicate.
“Immediacy is allowing people to immediately create, consume and participate in these services,” Dorsey said. “No barriers. No walls. People get in, they use it.”
The Internet is constantly increasing the pace of communication in American society. Audiences are judging an organization’s authenticity on the amount of time it takes for them to react.
“If you have immediacy, you can inspire transparency because it’s easier to talk about what you want to say,” Dorsey said. “Text is a very free and abstract notion. We learn a lot about people through text where we wouldn’t through speech because it’s harder to crystalize what you want to say verbally. With text, you can compose yourself a bit more. If you make it more immediate, you make it more transparent because people are updating all of the time and they are in more of the moment.”
An organization’s reaction is no longer a campaign of media releases, press kits or press conferences. Twitter forces people and organizations to communicate quickly and in headlines.
“This is where the constraint comes in with the 140 characters,” Dorsey said. “Instead of asking someone to write a big thesis on the wall or on a blank page, you ask them to write it on a piece of paper the size of a fortune in a fortune cookie. Any mark on that paper is valuable and that is really important to inspire.”
Communicating more frequently in smaller amounts is becoming more of the norm. Speed can cause mistakes and misunderstandings. But Dorsey believes people will forgive the mistakes of an organization if the organization is approachable.
“We have more transparency because people are updating more, they are communicating more, they are reacting more,” he said. “What that inspires is approachability. It makes organizations, systems and humans more human. More approachable.”
Dorsey illustrated this with two heartfelt examples. One was observing members of the Senate and the House of Representatives using Twitter during a presidential speech. The other was in Iraq.
“I have never felt closer to my government than in that moment,” Dorsey said of the first anecdote. “I had people on the floor during that speech, people who were dictating and forming policy around me, who were talking from their cell phones as normal people. That was awesome.
“The second time was when I was asked by the State Department to go to Baghdad to survey what was happening in Baghdad and in Iraq in general and to figure out if technology could help in any way. One of the biggest successes we had was getting the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq on Twitter. Not only did we get him on Twitter, we got him updating three times a day. And his updates are absolutely amazing. They are direct, frank and they bring people in.
“The biggest problem we had in Iraq was that no one had any idea what was going on or what the newly formed government was doing. That inspired a lot of distrust. When you have distrust, you’re not going to take any risks because you’re worried about the government screwing everything up. So if you’re allowed to have a communication with a head of state and you know that things are getting taken care of, you can take some risks. You can start a company. You can start a product. You can move out of Baghdad.”
One can read these quotes and think they’re the product of an oversized ego. But Dorsey’s self-assessment of his own communication showed tremendous humility and self awareness.
“When the company first saw (Twitter), we thought it was going to be the best thing ever for junior high and high school students,” Dorsey said. “It turned out that it was the best thing ever for old UNIX hackers with beards.
“It was a very long road to get where we are today in terms of our user base,” he said. “But some of the things we learned along the way was that we were very bad, initially, at communicating to the public. We had some very public and infamous failures and downtime. We weren’t telling anyone why this happened or what was going on. And here we were building a communication technology that’s focussed on transparency and we were being closed off. That was the biggest takeaway from the company.”
The lesson in external communication helped Dorsey come to grips with internal problems. The lesson he learned is a valauble one for any organization.
“One of the biggest problems with any start-up or any company in general is internal communication and working together,” he said. “What kept me up at night was not that the servers were going down, it was that this programmer was not agreeing with that programmer, they were fighting and it was at a stalemate. We could not stand together as a cohesive unit. That kills us. And that is our greatest competition and still is to this day.”
He encouraged students and others to be courageous in starting endeavors and become lifelong learners.
“If you are interested in pursuing a company, and I encourage you to do so, please pay attention to those small details of communicating internally,” Dorsey said. “And build the right team. That’s the other thing we learned from Twitter itself. We can learn from Twitter. We didn’t have all of the ideas. We didn’t have the direction, specifically. A lot of what you see that is successful on Twitter today is from the users.”
Dorsey concluded with advice that can help anyone leading an organization.
“The greatest lesson that I have learned in doing all of this is that you have to start,” Dorsey said. “It’s a shame, but you have to do it. You have to start now, start here and start small. Keep it simple.”
For those of you counting at home, the last three sentences are 103 characters.