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Marshall McLuhan was Never More Right: Why How We Communicate Matters More than Our Message

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If you ever had any doubt about how the medium really IS the message, I would like you to take this simple test. Think about the last time you had to say something difficult to someone: you’re fired, I don’t love you anymore, you have disappointed me. How much time did you think about the words? And how much time did you consider the timing and the means by which you would tell them – in person, by email, a note left on the counter? And where, when?

And the messages that mattered to you most, can you remember HOW you heard them? Even right down to the setting and place, the mood and ambience? Of course you do.

ICYMI, Stephen Colbert is a long-time supporter of the charity Donors Choose, which allows supporters to determine how to spend their donations by supplying needy teachers in the US. He is a major advocate for this organization, donating much of his book profits to their cause, and recently showed up at a schoolroom where the kids announced they were learning about the Constitution. They began to sing the preamble to the US Constitution by heart and partway through, he joined in. And so did I.

What makes this unusual is that I am Canadian – I theoretically shouldn’t know the preamble to the US Constitution (I certainly don’t know the Canadian one) but I learned it early. And it stuck.

For children of the 70s, SchoolHouse Rock was a fixture on American TV that highlighted educational concepts from grammar to science to basic math, and in this case, American political history. Through catchy tunes, colorful graphics and entertaining concepts (if I’m Just a Bill didn’t make you curious about how laws are made, then at least you could appreciate Jack Sheldon’s jazz stylings), they made learning come alive during commercial breaks for the Jetsons or the Flintstones. In other words, in a context where the listeners were open to absorbing new ideas and had not been preconditioned to thinking about it as being a formal learning environment.

This idea applies to how we communicate within our organizations and the impact from the message we anticipate. I have worked with many groups who have instinctively said, “Let’s do a video” for a variety of needs, from recruitment purposes to change management. And that’s not to say that videos are ineffective – they remain one of the most compelling ways to share a thoughtful, nuanced message as this powerful Apple video illustrates. But before you default to that relatively expensive option or choose any particular means, for that matter, to communicate your message, answer these three questions:

  1. Who do I intend the message for and how will they perceive it if received in this format? What will the format of the message tell people about the importance of the message?

  2. Do we want the audience to be able to share or keep this information and is this format the right way to communicate it for the purposes of easy transmission (or not)?

  3. Do we have or are we creating a precedent for sharing this information in this format that we can sustain? Will we be generating expectations we cannot fulfill?

SchoolHouse Rock was first on the air from 1973 to 1985. So if you do the math, that means that a more than thirty year-old message stuck with me because of an incredibly persuasive medium, a means that was impossible to ignore that made me really think about the message by hard-wiring it into my thinking for the decades that followed.

Hard to argue with that kind of success.


Topics: Communication, HOW, Corporate Culture