What you say, how you say it, and the medium you choose to communicate your message matter as much today as they did last century
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. He made this comment at a time when text messaging, FaceTime, and Zoom calls were but fragments of imagination in the pages of a Robert Heinlein novel.
There were far fewer communication mediums in the 1960s than today, though McLuhan’s phrase still has merit.
What you say, how you say it, and the medium you choose to communicate your message matter as much today as they did in the middle of the last century. In this post are the three factors you need to consider when selecting a medium for your message if you want to have the desired impact.
Immediately after launching his book, and for nearly 60 years since McLuhan’s work on communication and culture is a subject of much debate.
There are myriad issues with McLuhan’s “medium and messaging” position and today it is viewed more as a work of “aesthetic theory”, and not, as perhaps he intended, a definitive perspective on the comparative value of the method used to communicate a message and not the message itself. And while I disagree with McLuhan’s conjecture that content is secondary to method, he was on to something: How you communicate can influence, to a great extent, the form your message takes in the mind of the recipient.
When McLuhan released his book, my grandfather, Cyril Sheppard, was just a few years into his second career as an electronics technician with Teleglobe Canada in Wild Cove, Newfoundland. Only three years before, CANTAT-1, a transatlantic telecommunications cable and the second between Canada and the United Kingdom, was laid on the ocean floor between Hampden, Newfoundland and Oban, Scotland. My grandfather’s job was to ensure communication received from mainland North America made it’s way onto Europe via Newfoundland.
At the time, this cable was state-of-the-art and supported 80 telephone channels (the current fiber-optic cable supports up to one million simultaneous conversations) for calls between the North American and European continents. This was the golden age of telephone communication, Bakelite receiver and all!
However, communicating by phone had its limits. It was fast and easy, though relatively expensive, and the quality was often poor. It was great for communicating informally though other methods came into play if you wanted to communicate formally (write a letter), deliver a short message (telegram), or drive change in your organization (usually a face-to-face conversation or presentation, even back then).
In the 1960s, the relationship between message and method was very clear. So much so, that one would not be mistaken to presume the type and content of a message, given the method, before a single word was uttered.
Parallels to today
Today, business leaders have a plethora of options from which to choose when determining how to communicate their message. The default preference, much like in the 1960s, is to choose whatever’s fastest and easiest. Today, this often means text and instant messaging are now the norm where communication is instantaneous and direct.
But there remain occasions where other forms of communication are more relevant given the message to be conveyed. Consider the following three factors:
- People: How many are required to disseminate or receive your message?
- Impact: What is the impact you expect this message to have on your job or business? What are the implications if your message isn’t received as intended?
- Complexity: How complicated is the topic or issue you’re communicating about? Have you selected the simplest form of communication possible to convey your message?
For example, few people, low impact, low complexity messages are great candidates for instant messaging or texting. Or, if a moderate number of people are involved, the impact of your message is heightened, and the topic is more complex than you can summarize in 140 characters or less, perhaps you should consider sending an email. And if you’re implementing an organizational change that affects all of your employees, is set to have a significant impact on your business and has a complexity that you want to manage and articulate properly, a video call or face-to-face meeting is your best bet.
So in 60 years, not much has changed on this topic. As McLuhan’s critics were quick to point out, and to which I agree, the message is still more than just the medium. However, he was right in that the medium you choose to convey your message can profoundly impact how your message is received. Invest a few minutes up-front to decide why and how you want to communicate your message to increase the odds that it’s received as you intended.
Luke Sheppard is author of the new book Driving Great Results: Master The Tools You Need to Run A Great Business, which provides entrepreneurs and managers with nineteen practical and proven tools to build, launch, and manage a successful business. He is the founder and principle of Sheppard & Company, a firm created on the premise of helping others to apply the proven business principles he’s honed over his 20-year career.
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