The Medium Is the Message

By Joshua Messenger

March 14, 2023

In my university communication classes, several concepts follow me from course to course, regardless of the section’s subject matter. Just as engineers learn fundamental algebra once, but continue to use it over time, so do communication majors rely on fundamental theories. One of these is “the medium is the message.”

Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher who studied media theory throughout much of his career. He theorized that “the world is a global village.” As technology advanced, McLuhan reasoned, communication capability would increase quickly, allowing someone from India to seamlessly interact with someone from Indiana. With the growth of the internet, e-mail, and social media, most people accept his idea as fulfilled.

However, many initially balk at another of his concepts: “the medium is the message.” McLuhan coined this term in his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The theory will seem inapplicable and pretentious at first. Believe me, all of my peers immediately disagreed. But over time, we slowly began to see the value behind it.

First, What’s a Message?

A message is pretty simple: it’s any piece of content or symbol distributed to other people. A text is a message; so is a TV broadcast. A lecture is a message; so is the survey offered at the bottom of your receipt. Virtually anything is a message, regardless of whether it contains words or not. Ringing church bells are a message; so is the whine of an ambulance siren.

Each message is meant to indicate something, but it’s up to the receiver to interpret the meaning. Depending on past experiences, two people can interpret the same message in different ways. This is the basis of communication study, by the way: analyzing how people interpret the messages and symbols that give meaning to the world (kinda deep, right?).

Okay, So What’s a Medium?

A medium is the singular form of media; which is to say, a single channel or way that a message is distributed. An e-mail is a message, but the internet is the medium that allows the message to be sent. A song is a message, but radio waves are the medium that allow songs to be heard.

Any one message can be distributed in a variety of ways. If you wanted to wish your mother a happy birthday, you could tell her in person, via text, a card, e-mail, phone call, video chat, or another way. Each of those is a separate medium, even though the basic message—“happy birthday, Mom!”—is the exact same.

Who Cares?

Well, that’s a bit harsh, but I’ll tell you anyway. Marshall McLuhan argued that the message is irrelevant, and the medium is significantly more important. In other words, it doesn’t matter what you say, but rather how you say it.

[Quick note: I disagree with McLuhan’s belief that the message is largely unimportant, but I do agree that not enough attention is paid to the medium.]

This concept confused me at first, but the application became clear.

As leaders, we are all consistently telling the people in our organization things. Whether it’s explaining company policy, designating responsibility, or giving thanks, there are many ways to go about this. You have options, and that in itself is the point. The way you choose to express your particular message determines how it might be received.

If you don’t believe me, let’s go back to the birthday example. Most people give their mother a call to talk to her, but imagine if you sent her an e-mail instead!

                Dear Mom,

                Happy birthday! Hope you have a great day!

                Sincerely, Your Child

I don’t know about you, but my mom would hate this. It gives a completely different impression than a phone call.

So, shift this over to your organization. If you have a general policy change to announce, perhaps telling each person individually isn’t the way to go. It might seem to them like the policy change was directed at them specifically. A mass memo would be a better alternative. If you want to thank someone, writing a thank you note and hand delivering it (The Art of the Thank You) would be more personal and effective than summoning them to your office or sending an e-mail.

Any message you have automatically has a connotation because your people have expectations based on their experience with you. Therefore, each time you have a message to distribute (and yes, that includes the thousands of small things you do every day), the manner in which you distribute it determines how it will be received.

Your job as a leader is to consider how your messages will be delivered, because even “unimportant” messages can have different impressions on the receiver. Start with the major messages and analyze the best way to deliver those. Then you’ll naturally begin to think that way the smaller things.

The medium is the message!

Joshua Messenger is the editor of The Maximum Standard. He currently attends university in pursuit of degrees in sports communication, advertising, and public relations while working part-time with a variety of broadcasting companies. He typically rolls his eyes when a new communication theory is introduced in class, but then reluctantly changes his mind after a week or two of study.

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