This Thursday, July 21st, is the birthday of the late Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan is considered the father of media and communication studies, so we have a high regard for him here at Communispond.

McLuhan pithily summarized the most famous of his many principles with the phrase “the medium is the message.” He and graphic designer, Quentin Fiore, collaborated on a 1967 book that would both explain and demonstrate the meaning of the famous phrase. It was to be titled The Medium Is the Message. But when McLuhan received the proof of the book’s cover, the typesetter had made an error, and the title on the cover was The Medium Is the Massage. That became the title of the book. Far from considering the typo an error, McLuhan insisted it captured the spirit of his proposition: “Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!”

McLuhan’s insight on the meaning of the typo was that every communication medium influences or “massages” human perception. What he meant by “the medium is the message” is that the content of communication is trivial compared to the way its medium “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” It may seem obvious now that communications media — independent of content — change our values, norms, and way of life. But it was hardly so in the middle of the last century, and it took a genius like McLuhan to bring it to our attention.

McLuhan was concerned with the big issues of how media (and technology) shape human cognition and society. I am more concerned with how individuals change when they acquire communication skills. Reviewing his ideas this week got me to thinking about how his principles might work for individuals.

Every medium creates a kind of environment, and gaining skills in the use of the medium amounts to adapting yourself to that environment. When you acquire communication skills (i.e., when you adapt yourself to a communication medium’s environment) you become a different person. You don’t just become yourself with new skills added; you undergo a kind of metamorphosis. Adapting yourself to the environment of the business presentation, for example, means gaining control of the volume and projection of your voice, harnessing your innate energy, and mastering stance and gestures.

Every day in our Executive Presentation Skills® and our EPS Anywhere™ programs, we see people undergo the kind of metamorphosis I’m talking about. At the most trivial level, they generally come out of our programs with better posture and more impressive movements. But the process works at a deeper level, too. The fear of public speaking is nearly universal, and people who conquer it become more confident and graceful, not just on the platform, but in their everyday lives.

The medium is the message, and when you communicate face-to-face with an audience (whether the audience is one person or a thousand), remember that you are the communications medium. Mastering that medium means mastering yourself, which is another dimension of the metamorphosis.

This blog post has turned out to be less a discussion of McLuhan than a riff inspired by his ideas. I think he would have been pleased with that. He was as much a provocateur as a scholar. Happy Birthday, Marshall McLuhan.


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