Published: 08/12/2005 Volume 115 No. 5985 Page 34

Claire Austin is former communications director of University Hospital Birmingham foundation trust and is now a freelance consultant. claireaustin1 @hotmail. com Many of the best communicators are also talented orchestral musicians - but what's the connection?

First, musicians have to listen.

You must be acutely aware of what is going on around you and you need to adapt.

If you play a brass instrument you will often need to tone down your sound so it does not swamp the more delicate flutes and violins. And if you are a flautist, you will need to play up to be heard over the raucous brass section.

Second, you often have to play a part that fills in the harmonies, rather than takes the main melody.

Good communicators also have to steer an independent path. They usually have to forsake the easy 'tuneful' message for one that is harder to listen to.

Third, both have to be prepared to play the difficult solo part. As the eyes, ears and conscience of an organisation, communicators have to be the critical friend to chief executives and chairs.

Individual musicians may think they know best, but must follow the conductor. Similarly, communications professionals must listen to their chief executive.

Finally, musicians have to pull all the notes on the score together and turn them into beautiful sounds - not very different from pulling together all the facts about a new service and turning them into a credible press release.

Which musicians make the best communicators? Pianists usually play on their own so are not used to being part of a team. String players have to be in vast sections to make their voices heard - most NHS communications offices are anything but vast. The woodwind is full of individuals who all take it in turns to pipe up, while the brass is loud and notorious for sneaking off to the pub when faced with a quiet bit in a concert.

What do I play? The French horn.