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Communication Tip: “The Medium is the Message”

Gary Dumais Select Human Resources Paper and Pen

Surprisingly, the most important part of communication is NOT what you say or write.  For example, imagine you’re walking down a busy city street and see a disheveled man holding a sign saying, “The World Ends Today”.  Most likely, you wouldn’t be too concerned about the world ending.  In contrast, imagine you turned on your favorite news channel and saw the exact same words (“The World Ends Today”) on the screen.  You’d probably be extremely alarmed.  In both instances, the words are the same, yet the resulting message is very different.

This principle is described in the works of professor Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase, “The medium is the message”. “Medium” refers to how the message is conveyed, such as through TV, the internet, in a book, or a whisper in your ear from a friend.  And the medium by which a message is conveyed can carry greater meaning than the words the message is comprised of.  For example, imagine you receive a beautifully written poem about love…but it’s written on a used napkin from a public trash can.  It wouldn’t matter how well the poem was written, the resulting message is, well, trash and likely to be considered offensive.  Now imagine the same poem was written on rose petals.  The resulting message would be very different, and much better.  Moreover, the poem itself doesn’t even have to be very good; the fact that someone took the time to write it on rose petals (i.e., the medium) conveys a very positive and powerful message.

So how can you apply this principle at work and in everyday life?  Well, with your understanding of how the medium is the message, I recommend you take a moment to consciously consider and choose the best medium to convey your message (especially if it’s important).  For example, if you’d like to praise an employee for great work, I encourage you to consider what impact you’d like the message to have, and then choose how to convey it accordingly.  Saying, “Great job, I appreciate your effort” via email, or in-person, or through an announcement at a team meeting will have very different impacts.

Finally, I recommend you keep the “The medium is the message” principle in mind when evaluating communications and choosing sources of information.  For example, taking a moment to consider why certain mediums were chosen to convey a message (e.g., Twitter tweets vs. a press conference) can provide you with useful insights about who is communicating and what message they’re really sending.  Similarly, you’d be wise to place greater importance on information published in a credible medium (like Harvard Business Review) rather than to something posted on a questionable website.

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