A few years ago, I led an investment training session at our firm. I thought I did a pretty good job and made some salient points. However, after the training in talking with my co-workers I came to realize that my points were generally misconstrued and my message just created confusion and misunderstanding among our people. It was a frustrating and confounding experience, but it was only unique in that I discovered that the communication of my message had failed; most likely there are many other times my communications with others are misconstrued (and vice versa).
So, when I came across Wiio’s laws of communication, which can be summarized as “most human communications fail”, I found them thought provoking.
Osmo Wiio was a Finnish economist, journalist, and member of parliament, and he developed a series of laws over his career about communication that are insightful. These “laws” are not laws like the law of gravity, but rather are adages like Murphy’s Law. Here they are:
Wiio’s Seven Laws
1. Communication usually fails, except by accident.
- If communication can fail, it will.
- If communication cannot fail, it still most usually fails.
- If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there’s a misunderstanding.
- If you are content with your message, communication certainly fails.
2. If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage.
3. There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant with your message.
4. The more we communicate, the worse communication succeeds.
5. The more we communicate, the faster misunderstandings propagate.
6. In mass communication, the important thing is not how things are but how they seem to be.
7. The importance of a news item is inversely proportional to the square of the distance.
8. The more important the situation is, the more probable you had forgotten an essential thing that you remembered a moment ago.
Some Thoughts on These Laws
While Wiio’s laws strike me as too pessimistic, I think they do have some validity and knowledge of them can help us be more clear when we communicate. If you have an important message to convey, assuming that your communication is likely to fail is a good mindset to have. Some strategies to improve the chances that communication will succeed include:
- Practice active listening. We’re all trapped inside our heads with thoughts ricocheting around willy-nilly. When others are communicating, we’re often thinking other things or planning what we’re going to say in response. Remembering that communication is a two-way street and doing our part by listening and focusing is essential.
- Repetition. We tend to think that once we’ve said a thing that it has been heard and understood, but that’s usually not the case. Important messages should be repeated often. In his excellent book The Four Obsessions Of An Extraordinary Executive: A Leadership Fable, author and leadership consultant Patrick Lencioni says that leaders should have four obsessions: (1) building a cohesive leadership team, (2) creating organizational clarity, (3) overcommunicating organizational clarity, and (4) reinforcing organizational clarity. Lencioni stresses that it is crucial to simplify important messages and then repeat them over and over.
- Simplify. I’m writing a book, and after reading my first chapter my editor required me to read a book titled Writing Without Bullshit. She wanted me to read the book because I wasn’t writing clearly and simply — my points were too convoluted and the language I used stood in the way of my messages. The main point of the book is that when you’re writing (whether it’s a book, memo or email) you should just say what you mean. And do so simply.
- Tell a Story. As a species, we’ve evolved to tell stories. “Our brains have been wired by evolution in such a manner that remembering a story is far easier than remembering isolated bits of information. Stringing together events and facts into a believable and satisfying narrative is the brain’s way to conserve energy.” Source. Thus, messages which are wrapped in a story are more likely to take hold than merely stating whatever your point is. Here’s a related IFOD on this point: Why The Stories You Tell Convey Your Intelligence.