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. When Parks sat down on that bus, she wasn’t acting spontaneously: just a few months before she’d been attending workshops on effective communication and civil disobedience, and the entire arrest was carefully planned by Parks and the local NAACP. After she was arrested, they 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.
There are many skills that can help you communicate ideas. One is social advocacy, like Rosa Parks. Another is more like being an individual public intellectual, who can either specialise in a mass audience (like Carl Sagan), or a particular niche (like Paul Farmer, a medical anthropologist who wrote about global health). Or you can learn skills in marketing and public relations and then work as part of a team or organisation to spread important ideas.
In a nutshell: Communicating ideas can be a way for a small group of people to have a large effect on a problem. By building up a skill set for communicating ideas, you could end up in a role that inspires many people to do far more good than you could ever have done by yourself.
Key facts on fit
This is a very broad skill set, so it’s hard to say in general. If you find it easy to actually finish communicative work (like writing or making videos) and/or you have good social skills, those are signs you’ll be a good fit. It also helps if you feel like you’ll be motivated by people seeing the work you produce.
Why is a communication skill set valuable?
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 of smallpox often goes to D.A. Henderson (who directly oversaw the programme), it was Viktor Zhdanov who lobbied the World Health Organization 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 communication skill set, 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, communicating ideas is a way to have an impact on a large scale. Ideas can spread quickly, so communicating ideas 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 communicators could have achieved directly.
Second, spreading ideas that are important for society in a concerted, strategic way is neglected. This is because there’s usually no commercial incentive to spread socially important ideas. 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.
Third, communicating ideas 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 communicating ideas, 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!)
More specifically, communicators can help do things like:
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).
Provide AI researchers and policymakers with the understanding required to successfully navigate 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.
Another advantage of learning this skill set is that it can be applied to almost any pressing problem. Almost all organisations have some need for marketing, public relations, and other external communications, and almost all problem areas have ideas that would be useful to spread. This gives you a lot of future flexibility.
Moreover, although some versions of this skill set are mainly useful in the social sector and for having an impact (e.g. how to run a direct action campaign), there are skills in this area that are highly-paid and make you generally employable, such as marketing, sales, and public relations. Similarly, building an audience as an individual communicator often opens up a wide range of future career opportunities within your audience. So, learning this skill set can give you back-up options if you decide to step back from doing good for a while or earn to give.
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, be careful about communicating ideas without much input from others, and, if you’re building a communication skill set, you may also need to build especially good judgement about which ideas to communicate and how to best communicate them.
What does building a communication skill set typically involve?
Content creation skills
One path we recommend to readers is to become a content creator. This can include:
Content creation careers often involve the following steps:
Honing your craft. Typically, a content creation career starts with 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 an audience. If you’re working in a large organisation — for example as a journalist — the idea is to build career capital so you can move somewhere that has a large audience.
If you’re pursuing a career where you work more individually — for example, as a social media influencer or writing books — you’ll need to build an audience yourself. To do this, create lots of material to develop an audience to grow your future impact.
In this stage, you shouldn’t necessarily be focusing on impact right away, 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 about the ideas you think are most important. (One great way of doing that — while practising your content creation skills — is learning by writing.)
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.
The specific skills, qualifications, and approaches you’ll need to build will depend on the audience you’re trying to influence. If you’re aiming to communicate ideas to ~100 policymakers who specialise in a certain topic (like Viktor Zhdanov), the strategies you’ll use will be very different from someone aiming to communicate to the population in general (like Rosa Parks).
Some example approaches:
Subject matter expert: trying to become known for being the point person on a particular topic — works best for more technical or niche audiences
Translation: taking expert positions and making them accessible to a larger audience (e.g. science journalists, nonfiction authors) — sometimes works best for niche audiences (such as when translating technical research for policymakers) and other times works best for wider audiences
Generalist content creation: speaking to a large, mainstream audience (e.g. TV personalities, many journalists) — works best for creating mass buy-in for ideas
While we’ve worked with several readers who have become journalists, these other paths are often seen as glamorous careers, which makes them very competitive — so we typically recommend them less often.
Moreover, the competitive pressure involved usually means you have to spend a large fraction of your career creating the most commercially viable and popular content rather than focusing on the most important ideas.
However, if you think you might be able to succeed at getting to the top of one of these paths (and especially if you’re already on track), it’s worth considering continuing. After getting established, it’s often possible to then devote, say, 20% of your time to projects that you think are socially valuable. You’ll also likely gain connections with many others who have large audiences, helping you spread important ideas indirectly.
Then, work as part of an organisation or team who are spreading important ideas.
The structure of these careers are similar to those in the organisation-building skill set, so see that profile for more specific advice on getting started and evaluating your fit.
Briefly, you’ll want to start by working with a team who are outstanding at these kinds of skills.
That might involve joining a team that’s already working on an important problem, but it’s more common to first work at an organisation that doesn’t have much positive impact but can offer you mentorship and feedback. For example, you could learn digital marketing by working at a top startup or agency.
Once you have skills to offer, two options include:
Find a job with a team who are spreading important ideas. This could look like working at an advocacy nonprofit, joining a political campaign, or being head of public relations for an author.
Join an impactful organisation and work on their communications, public relations, or marketing strategies.
Communicating ideas alongside another job
Some jobs make communicating ideas their central focus, such as those we listed right above.
But it’s also possible to learn to spread ideas well in any job by:
Being a sensible advocate for good ideas in conversation and refining your views over time
Engaging with and recommending articles, books, podcasts, and the like to family, friends, colleagues, and others in your circles
Posting ideas and articles on social media
You can also communicate ideas as a side project. For example:
Run a podcast, blog, or Twitter feed with a significant following.
It’s possible to build a skill set for communicating ideas while you’re in a normal, stable job which gives you space to pursue projects like these on the side (although we’d generally recommend eventually making building your core skill set your primary career focus, which can be hard to do if it’s a side project).
The careers that put you in the best position to spread important ideas (and learn to do so effectively) are those that let you:
Build a platform (e.g. anything that makes you well known in your field)
Gain credibility (e.g. being a respected academic)
Being super successful at anything that’s slightly public facing (for example, roles in academic research, or in government, or founding a business) can also put you in a good position to spread important ideas, even if communicating ideas isn’t a core part of the role. 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 through 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 (though using fiction to get across important ideas without manipulation is a rare skill).
How to evaluate your fit
How to predict your fit in advance
Some early signs that you’re a good fit for building skills for communicating ideas include:
You find it relatively easy to develop content in some medium. For example, you might find it very easy to write — whether that’s marketing copy or academic reports or popular articles. Similarly, you might find it fairly easy to make videos. Bear in mind that almost everyone finds writing and other creative work difficult. If you’ve found in your life that you can do this for a few hours a day and actually finish some work, you’re doing well.
You are verbally fluent and have 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.
You might need some basic quantitative skills — at least enough to be able to understand data about your work.
You feel like you’ll be motivated by people seeing the work you’ve produced.
Once you’ve started exploring communicating ideas, 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?
Check our career reviews to see if we have a career profile covering the specific pathway you’re interested in. (Though we regret we haven’t yet written profiles on many of the common media careers.)
If you’re focusing on content creation work, some good signs that you’re on the right track are:
You’re producing lots of content.
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.
You’re starting to build a following or career capital that might lead to a following in the future.
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 100,000 views per video on YouTube or 100,000 likes per video on 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 two major publications (e.g. The Guardian, Vox).
As a reminder: you don’t necessarily need to be writing about important issues at the early stages — what matters is that you will bring in more of these issues in the future.
How to get started building a communication skill set
You can start building a communication skill set by studying anything — or doing any job — that will let you practice 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 practice with independent work on the side, such as blogging, tweeting, media, podcasting, tiktoking, etc. It can even be possible to write a book alongside another job. (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.)
Having a portfolio of content can help you if you want to get into most communications roles, including ones at large organisations (like marketing or PR).
Content creation skills
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 practice 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.
Whatever your chosen medium or platform, try to create something regularly.
What content should you produce?
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.
Which medium should you choose?
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, and 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, policy makers). 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 your general ability to communicate 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.
Once you’ve developed your skills and audience, then it’s time to focus more on having an impact, which we cover in the next section.
Organisational communication skills
The structure of these careers are similar to the organisation-building skill set — you can get started by finding any role that will let you start learning one of these skills, like any role in marketing, editing, public relations, lobbying, visual design, or campaigning.
For communications roles at organisations, it can help to spend some time getting good at presenting yourself, for example by building a personal website with nice copy and good presentation. This lets you practice your skills as well as having something to show off to potential employers.
If you’d like to pursue this type of career, there is sometimes funding available. Some sources to consider include:
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.
Once you have this skill set, how can you best apply it to have an impact?
Once you have the skills and an audience, the question becomes which messages to focus on to have the biggest impact.
Some messages are more important to spread than others, but some messages are also easier to spread. You need to consider both factors and how their significance multiplies.
Moreover, you need to customise the analysis for your audience. The messages that are important and likely to spread among Ariana Grande fans are totally different from those likely to spread among philosophy academics.
Some key factors for comparing messages include the following (which is an adapted version of our problem framework):
Important – if this idea spread among your audience, how much impact would result?
Neglected – how widely known is this idea by your audience already? How much is it already discussed by other creators in your space?
Is it of interest to your audience? Or otherwise possible to get attention for given your platform? This makes it more likely to spread.
Is it personally interesting and motivating for you to work on?
The aim is to find messages or topics that do best on the multiple of all four factors.
Here’s a process you could go through to generate ideas:
Generate ideas for messages and ideas that could, if spread more widely among your audience, enable more progress on these problems. This could be calls to get more people working on these problems, information about the best solutions to them, or messages to help decision makers understand these issues better. To do this, explore the resources in our problem profiles and then speak to experts in the area about what would be helpful.
Think about which messages could be most of interest to your audience or a good fit for your platform.
Experiment with spreading those that seem most promising. It might take some trial and error to find an idea and framing that resonates with your audience. In particular, before taking on a big project like a book or documentary, try to test it out in a smaller version.
We listed a couple of examples of ideas we’d like to see spread above.
In practice, you’ll likely want to continue to publish a mixture of content that builds your audience or pays the bills and content that you think is especially impactful.
All our career reviews relevant to a communication skill set