Meaning Guide

Does our choice of medium reflect the significance of our message?

When I was 18, the IRA hid a bomb outside Belfast Castle, where my sister was celebrating her wedding.  It was nothing personal – the security forces had been tipped off, so the bombers had to dump their device before moving to their real target.  It was also New Year’s Eve, so this was one of the only interesting news stories for the following day.  Overnight my sister became the “IRA bomb bride”, and took up most of the front page of all the national newspapers.

The trouble was, it was actually a bit of a non-story.  It was inconvenient, because we had to move the festivities back to the church hall, but the real disaster – two wheelie-bins of Semtex going off in the city centre – had been averted.  Yet there it was:  Front page, big colour photos of my sister, imposing headlines.  It struck me as slightly odd at the time that if the bomb had have gone off, the significance of the story would have increased by an order of magnitude, yet the form of the message would have stayed the same – the same size of headline, the same size of image, the same size of front page.

Once you start looking you can see this pattern everywhere.  The TV news bulletin has to fill 30 minutes, even if there’s only 5 minutes’ worth of news.  Your 80,000 word book deal requires 80,000 words, even if your idea could be summarised in a page.  Everyone on the Question Panel gets two minutes to answer the question, even though only one of them is a bona fide expert on the subject.

Or in the corporate world, your £100k consulting report is expected to be a 100 pages long, even if you haven’t discovered anything worth reporting.  The graphic facilitator fills a wall with pictures, even if no one said anything particularly useful during the meeting.

How much corporate communication has no discernible impact because it only exists to meet expectations?  To fill the newsletter?  To have a programme charter because everyone else has one?  To fill the walls with colourful graphics about values, commitments, missions and priorities, even though these seem to change every time there’s a new MD?

And vice versa – how much communication of genuine significance gets lost in the fog?  You have game-changing news to share, but your only channel is the corporate newsletter … and terms like “game-changing” are already so over-used by your leadership team that no one really knows what they mean anymore.  Or you have 200 pages of hugely significant content to report that everyone should read, but no one has time to.  And so on and so forth.

Marshall McLuhan famously said that “the medium is the message”.  If this is true, then what would happen if we started genuinely aligning the significance of the message with the salience of the medium?  What would be the corporate equivalent of allowing the news bulletin to vary from one minute to an hour depending on whether it was important or not?

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