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Intended Messages Do Not Always Arrive As Intended

In 1906, O Henry penned his short story, By Courier. It runs just shy of 1,500 words, yet, it is packed with entertaining and fascinating lessons in communications. I am not talking about the craft of short story writing but rather O Henry’s lessons on how intended messages are not always received as intended. If you care to, I recommend reading the story prior to absorbing what follows or enjoy the synopsis. Here is a link to the story.

By Courier features a man and woman sitting on different benches a distance apart in a park. They use a young boy to run messages to each other. These messages get twisted and turned for many reasons. The man initiates the back and forth with his own subjectivity. The boy relays it in less refined language and different emphasis. The woman absorbs the message with her own interpretation. There a couple of to and fro’s that further confuse. Eventually the tale ends with a fun and ultimately clear resolution.

Of course, clear resolution or even understanding does not always take place in our interactions and communications. We make assumptions, embrace subjectivity, lack empathy, fail to grasp key points, and hear-what-we-like-to-hear among other issues.

Communication comes in many forms. There is written, spoken, visual, gestures, non-verbals and more. All communications share the same steps. O Henry’s story captures these beautifully:

  1. Motivation or reason for communicating
  2. Message composition
  3. Message type … digital data, written text, speech, pictures, gestures and so on
  4. Transmission of the message using a specific channel or medium
  5. Natural forces and human activity that influence the message in sending
  6. Message reception
  7. Interpretation and making sense of the original message

These steps come across as rather clinical, if not, linear. If you think about it, they are far more dynamic especially in our sped-up, always-on, technology-driven world. When I communicate or design communications for clients, I try to build this complex “sandwich” by first focusing on the bread. The bread are numbers one and seven of the steps.

If you concentrate on your motivation and reason that will add intended clarity. Then you have to mentally ‘hop-over’ and think as the recipient. How will they receive, interpret and decode your message. This will further refine the message. You will never get it perfect because other elements come into play. However, that effort will pay off in greater accuracy of intent and, often, appreciation by the recipient for you having taken the time to think and communicate from their perspective.

Let’s close off with The Blind Man and the Advertising Story. This is well- and oft-told tale in business schools. You will find many lessons in it as well. The biggest is wrapping a fact with personal and emotional relevance. I invite you to note the others.

An old blind man was sitting on a busy street corner in the rush-hour begging for money. On a cardboard sign, next to an empty tin cup, he had written: ‘Blind – Please help’.

No-one was giving him any money.

A young advertising writer walked past and saw the blind man with his sign and empty cup, and also saw the many people passing by completely unmoved, let alone stopping to give money.

The advertising writer took a thick marker-pen from her pocket, turned the cardboard sheet back-to-front, and re-wrote the sign, then went on her way.

Immediately, people began putting money into the tin cup.

After a while, when the cup was overflowing, the blind man asked a stranger to tell him what the sign now said.

“It says,” said the stranger, ” ‘It’s a beautiful day. You can see it. I cannot.’ “

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Communication is Hard Work

A few quotes to help us better communicate…

“The two words information and communication are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.” Sydney Harris

“The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue.” Edward R. Murrow

“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” Tony Robbins

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

“The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.” Joseph Priestley

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