After Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, she and the NAACP used widely distributed fliers to launch a total boycott of buses in a city with 40,000 African Americans, while simultaneously pushing forward with legal action. This led to major progress for civil rights.
Many of the highest-impact people in history have been communicators and advocates of one kind or another.
Take Rosa Parks, who in 1955 refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus, sparking a protest which led to a Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional. Parks was a seamstress in her day job, but in her spare time she was involved with the civil rights movement. After she was arrested, she and the NAACP used widely distributed fliers to launch a total boycott of buses in a city with 40,000 African Americans, while simultaneously pushing forward with legal action. This led to major progress for civil rights.
Communication can be aimed at a broad audience (like in Parks’s case) or a narrow influential group. This means there are also many examples of important communicators you’ve never heard of, like Viktor Zhdanov.
In the 20th century, smallpox killed around 400 million people — far more than died in all the century’s wars and political famines.
Although credit for the elimination often goes to D.A. Henderson (who directly oversaw the programme), it was Viktor Zhdanov who lobbied the WHO to start the elimination campaign in the first place — while facing significant opposition from the members of the World Health Assembly (the proposal passed by just two votes). Without his involvement, smallpox’s elimination probably would not have happened until much later, costing millions of lives, and possibly not at all.
So why has communicating important ideas sometimes been so effective?
First, communication is a route to leverage. Ideas can spread quickly, so communication is a way for a small group of people to have a large effect on a problem. Ideas also stick around once they’re out there, meaning your impact persists.
If you can mobilise two people to support an issue, that’s potentially twice as impactful as working on it yourself.
Technology has magnified these effects even further. More than ever before, normal people can launch a social movement, lobby a government, start a campaign that influences public opinion, or just persuade their friends to take up a cause. When successful, these efforts can have a lasting impact on a problem that goes far beyond what the advocates could have achieved directly.
Second, spreading important ideas in a concerted, strategic way is neglected. This is because there’s usually no commercial incentive to spread socially important ideas (and in fact, the commercial incentives are to spread the most outrageous ideas, so you can sell advertising on the clicks). Moreover, the ideas that are most impactful to spread are those that aren’t yet widely accepted. Standing up to the status quo is uncomfortable, and it can take decades for opinion to shift. This means there’s also little personal incentive to stand up for them.
For a related reason, we think communication careers can often be better than earning to give. One reason for this is that nearly everyone wants more money, so there’s a lot of competition for high-earning jobs. There’s a lot less competition to spread important but neglected ideas for the reasons we just discussed. That suggests it should be easier for many people to influence more money by spreading good ideas than they could donate — especially for those with an aptitude for communication.
Communication is an area where the most successful efforts do far more than the typical efforts. The most successful communicators influence millions of people, while others might struggle to persuade more than a few friends. This means that it’s a high-risk strategy, in the sense that your efforts might very well come to nothing. But it’s also high reward, and if you’re an especially good fit for communication, it might well be the best thing you can do. (Read about why we think more people should dream big if they want to do good.)
The problems we highlight are unusually neglected, so often few people work on them or even know they’re problems. This means that simply telling people about these problems (and effective solutions to them) can be high impact, by increasing the number of talented people who might want to help. (Indeed, that’s part of our own strategy for impact!)
Stand up for technology agnosticism to tackle climate change, especially for approaches that are unfairly unpopular (e.g. nuclear energy) or unknown (e.g. hot rock geothermal) or unsexy (e.g. decarbonising the cement industry rather than electric cars).
Convince people working on artificial intelligence (and the policymakers that will govern it) of the challenge of AI alignment.
Spreading important ideas like those above might not only have immediate benefits in terms of getting more people to work on these issues — it also helps to advance society’s understanding of these ideas, moving the discourse forward, making important ideas more mainstream, and eventually shaping policy and social norms.
You can see more information on the best solutions to the global problems we focus on in our problem profiles.
A word of warning: it seems fairly easy to accidentally do harm if you promote mistaken ideas, promote good ideas in a way that turns people off (e.g. by being sensationalistic or dishonest), or draw people’s attention away from even more important issues. So career paths within this category that are relatively autonomous may require especially good judgement about which ideas to communicate and how to best communicate them.
What do communication careers involve?
Some jobs make communication their central focus, such as:
Gain credibility (e.g. being a respected academic)
Being super successful at almost anything can also put you in a good position to spread important ideas. If Ariana Grande came to us for career advice, we wouldn’t recommend she quit music and become an AI safety researcher. Rather, we’d discuss how she might use her platform to spread important ideas that might appeal to her fans.
We haven’t worked with Ariana, but we have worked with an Olympic tennis player, Marcus Daniell. He decided to use his position — and especially his connections — to set up High Impact Athletes, which encourages professional athletes to pledge a fraction of any prize money they win to high-impact charities.
Communication also doesn’t need to be nonfiction. For example, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality popularised ideas about the importance of agency and how common biases affect our ability to make good decisions.
The specific skills, qualifications, and approaches each communication career involves will depend on the audience you’re trying to influence. For example:
Subject matter experts — people who are known for being the point person on a particular topic — are best for more technical or niche audiences.
‘Translators’ — people who take expert positions and make them accessible to a larger audience (e.g. science journalists, nonfiction authors) — can sometimes be best for niche audiences, (such as when translating technical research for policymakers), and are sometimes best for wider audiences.
Generalists — people who speak to a large, mainstream audience (e.g. TV personalities, many journalists) — are important for creating mass buy-in for ideas.
How a communication career evolves over time
A successful communication career involves these rough stages:
Honing your craft. Typically, a communication career starts with you learning your medium, and then learning how to communicate effectively with a certain target audience (usually starting small, like with Twitter or a blog).
Building your following. Create lots of material to develop an audience to grow your future impact. In this stage, you don’t need to write about global problems, but rather anything that builds your reach and credibility. That said, if credibility requires expertise, you might also want to use this time to build that expertise by learning and talking about the ideas you think are most important.
Promoting the most important ideas. Once you have a following, you can increasingly focus on figuring out how to use it to have the most impact. This usually involves thinking carefully about which ideas are (i) important (i.e. impactful if people know and act on them) (ii) neglected (i.e. not well known by your target audience already), and (iii) relevant or interesting to your audience, so that they’re more likely to be inspired to help with them.
Some early signs you should consider focusing on a communication career include:
You find it relatively easy to get content out of the door in your chosen medium, whether that’s writing blog posts or books, making podcasts, making YouTube videos, or something else. Bear in mind that almost everyone finds writing and other creative work difficult. If you’re able to do several hours of high-quality work per day, and actually finish some work, you’re doing well.
You get good feedback on your content, relative to people who have spent a similar amount of time on it (don’t forget that most public communicators have honed their craft for years, often long before they were famous).
You find it easy to connect with your target audience (through at least one medium), and convince at least some of them of new ideas.
In many cases, being verbally fluent and having good social skills are good signs of fit, but there are many exceptions. For example, someone can be nerdy and awkward, but make an amazing blogger.
How to tell if you’re on track once you’ve gotten started
Once you’ve started exploring communication career paths, you’ll want to ask yourself: “How generally successful am I by the standards of the communication track I’m on?”
For instance, if you’re trying to become a journalist, are you on track to land a job after several years of trying?
If you’re focusing on independent work, some good signs that you’re on the right track are:
You’re producing lots of content
You get good feedback on it (at least from some segment of your audience)
You’re starting to build a following
It’s hard to generalise about what levels of following are ‘good’ at different stages. Here are some extremely rough guides for what might be promising after 2–4 years for different media:
You’re often able to get 10,000 views per video on YouTube or TikTok.
You have a podcast with over 1,000 subscribers, and a typical episode you release gets 3,000 downloads (though podcasts are especially hard to launch if you don’t already have an audience).
As a blogger, you have a newsletter or Substack with over 5,000 subscribers.
You have 10,000 followers on Twitter.
If you’re aiming to get published in mainstream media outlets, you have had content in more than one major publication (e.g. The Guardian, Vox).
As a reminder: you don’t necessarily need to be writing about important issues at the early stages of this career — what matters is that you will bring in more of these issues in the future.
How to get started in communication careers
Honing your craft
You can start by building skills by studying anything — or doing any job — that will let you practise writing, public speaking, or creating any other type of content.
If you’re not able to do communication in your main work responsibilities, you can practise with independent work, such as blogging, book writing, tweeting, media, podcasting, tiktoking etc. (Though for anyone doing independent public work, make sure you avoid publishing something unintentionally offensive, as this could affect your career prospects for a long time, even if the offence is the result of a misunderstanding.)
For aspiring writers, we recommend getting into the habit of writing regularly — ideally every day (even if it’s only a few hundred words) — and posting your writing publicly on Facebook, Twitter, or a blog.
For spoken content, you should practise in any ways you can — for example, give presentations in your professional area, join your local Toastmasters group, make video blogs, or start a podcast.
Content that’s great can achieve orders of magnitude more reach and impact than content that’s merely good. People tend to produce much higher-quality content when they’re naturally interested in a topic and working in a medium they genuinely like. So we’d encourage you to pay attention to where your intrinsic motivation leads you, rather than just focusing on strategically selecting the ‘best’ topic or media type.
It may take some time to find the medium that’s the best fit for you. Someone might love long-form blog posts but hate Twitter; others find their niche in video, media appearances, or public talks. Experiment with different media to find the one that comes most naturally and is most motivating.
That said, as a secondary consideration, it can make sense to focus on media that are new and rapidly growing (it’s much easier to gain followers on new social media platforms than established ones), or are especially good for reaching a certain audience (e.g. HackerNews for the tech industry) and that fit your message (e.g. books and podcasts are better for complex ideas).
Finding your audience
To get started, you might ask yourself: “What’s a type of person that I understand and communicate well with, better than most people wanting to make a difference do?” If you’re a student, this might be fellow students. Or it could be others in your industry (e.g. biologists). Or it could be a mass audience, like educated Americans.
Once you’re clearer on who your target audience is, your main aim should probably be to build the general ability of communicating with that audience. You might want to try to get any job that involves communicating with your chosen audience and allows you to get feedback on a regular basis — whether or not you’re producing content on topics directly related to pressing global problems.
If you’re interested in communicating with fairly general/widespread audiences, most jobs in journalism, and many in public relations and corporate communications, would be useful.
If you’re focused on a more niche audience (e.g. AI scientists), then you might want to work somewhere where you can meet lots of people in that audience.
Find a job in this path
Filter our job board by ‘Outreach’ to find jobs in this category:
If you’d like to pursue this type of career, there is more and more funding available. Some sources to consider:
The Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund sometimes makes small grants that could help you transition into these types of careers. For instance, if you’d like to test out making YouTube videos about one of our recommended problems full-time for three months, you could ask for $10,000; or if you’re interested in working in journalism but can’t earn enough money right away, you could ask for a salary top-up. They’re also interested in helping cover the costs of internships or graduate school.