A message in a bottle is like an idea when it forms in your mind coupled with the intention to share it with someone. Like the bottle, your mind contains a secret or a mystery (the idea or message) that wants to be revealed. We send out a multitude of messages every day. How many of those messages are received? How many messages are lost at sea?

When we transmit a message to someone…and we say the words we intended to say…to the person they were intended for, is it enough for our message to get through? In my experience, it’s rarely enough.

We’re often in a hurry to deliver a message and we lack the patience or insight to check in with our receiver(s) to verify what they actually understood. Osmo Wiio, a researcher from Finland, wrote a series of humorously pessimistic laws of human communication. His fundamental law is:

“Communication usually fails, except by accident.”

Among the reasons that human communication fails, Wiio sited four problem areas: language differences, cultural differences, personal differences, and data loss (when the listener stops paying attention at a critical moment and misses something essential). While language and cultural differences are often sited as barriers to communication in organisations, I believe that personal differences and data loss are largely overlooked.

To remove the barrier of personal differences or any differences with our receiver, we must seek to be “on the same wavelength” with them. To get on the same wavelength, we can start by getting curious about that person and letting go of our judgment. Then we can begin to look for interests or opinions that we have in common. This common ground makes it easier to understand and agree with each other.

Wiio argues that the laws of statistics are against your message getting through…because a single misunderstanding in any of these four areas destroys the message!! His laws (which resemble Murphy’s Laws) may have even greater relevance today, compared to back in 1978 when he formulated them, given the continuous growth of our borderless, information-overloaded society, and our overwhelming tendency to get distracted.

Wiio’s laws of communication are very revealing in terms of how complex human communication really is, while his humorous approach points to the comical aspect of communication mixups to suggest that we shouldn’t take ourselves or our message too seriously!

When delivering a message, we tend to focus on what we want to say (the words). It’s often the only preparation we do before a planned meeting or presentation. Most of us focus on the message itself, not on the receiver. It isn’t logical, it’s habitual! We may also jump into delivering a message without giving any thought to whether or not the listener is ready to listen. We just drive on through, without paying attention to how our message is landing with him!

Considering the complexity of communication as a whole and the numerous problem areas, we should focus much more on our receiver or audience. After all, our reason to communicate IS THE RECEIVER, which points to the importance of the relationship between the sender and the receiver(s), the “rapport”.

We need to focus much more on building rapport and identifying common ground with our receiver or audience. This will undoubtably increase our chances of accidental success when communicating with them.

As human beings, we are social beings with a need to share something of ourselves, to be seen and heard, and to connect with others. The connection with other people helps us to know we exist and to feel accepted for who we are. We have a fundamental need and a right to communicate.

How to increase your chances of successful communication – by accident! :

1. Respect yourself and the receiver or audience. When you respect who you are, and the importance of what you have to say, you’ll allow yourself to take up space in a room, and use the power of your voice to deliver that message with confidence. When you respect your receiver or audience they will feel it, and trust you enough to listen to what you have to say. When they feel respected, they’ll respect you in return. Mutual respect is the basis for all healthy relationships.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”    Maya Angelou

2. Become friends with the receiver or audience. This may sound difficult, impossible or maybe even undesirable… but consider for a moment what might be possible if you had a better relationship with that “difficult” person, if you understood them better. You might discover some common interests, ideas or understanding. Would that help you to communicate with them more easily? Try being curious to understand who they are and what makes them tick. Listen and observe without judgment.  

3. Teach each other how to communicate. Let your receiver know who you are and understand YOUR needs and wants. Your approach to communicating with others is your way of showing them how you want to be communicated with.  Listen to your audience to understand their needs and wants for communication and adapt as needed.

4. Prepare and practice your communication (in advance of the event) out loud for the receiver/audience. Imagine your audience in front of you and speak as if they were there with you. Your presentation must be written for them, not for you! The words you use should speak to them. Speaking the words out loud allows us to determine the right words to use and to find our authentic voice to deliver them. You could even record your voice to see how it sounds and make any necessary adjustments. Preparation is key because you’ll be more at ease knowing your material and having practiced your delivery. You’ll feel more confident in your ability to communicate your message.  

5. Be present in the moment when communicating. You can start by informing your listener of your intention (your WHY) for your communication to let them know what’s in it for them so they’ll be open to listening to you. Beyond speaking the words articulately, while looking at and speaking to your audience, it’s important to accompany the receiver/audience in the moment to make sure your message is heard, received, and understood. Listen, observe, respond, and inquire to get feedback from them. Remember that communication is never a one-way street and your receiver(s) will also have a message or two for you! The more you can engage the audience in a conversation the better. Be prepared to respond and move with the flow of your exchanges. Have some fun with it!  

Every moment is an opportunity to speak purposefully with other human beings, to inform, help, understand, share, connect and build rapport. The quality of relationships we have at work has a direct impact on our ability to communicate effectively with those people and on our daily experience of work.

The poetic message in a bottle provides an opportunity for reflection:

  1. What’s your message in a bottle?
  2. Why do you choose to communicate it?
  3. Who’s your audience and what do you know about them?
  4. What actions can you take to know your audience / the people you work with (e.g., their needs and wants) better?
  5. How will you speak to them in their language?
  6. What does your audience enjoy and how can you integrate some of that into your communication?

My message in a bottle for today is, “Let’s make communication and collaboration easier and more enjoyable for everyone!”