RIP Osmo Wiio. An accidentally great communicator

20_wiio_wwwRecently, I learned of the death in February of Finnish academic (and more) Osmo Wiio, the originator of some of my favorite go-to quotes regarding communications. (More on those quotes in a moment.)

To be honest, I was surprised that he was still alive in 2013–I’ve never thought of Osmo Wiio being an actual, living human being. To me, he was more like a mythical, even mystical, figure from a mystical land. (Update & correction: I’ve been informed that Finland is an actual country, not a fictional one.)

I’ve always pictured Osmo Wiio residing up on some after-life mountain top, where he spends his days sipping vodka, smoking cigars and exchanging quip-filled theories on why people say the darndest things with other dearly departed buddies, say, Sigmund Freud, Marshall McLuhan and Garrison Keillor. (Update & correction: I’ve been informed that Garrison Keillor is still alive. I really should start fact-checking this stuff.)

Professor Wiio was creator of something others have called, “the Murphy’s Law of Communications,: “Osmo Wiio’s Seven Laws of Communication Failure.” The essence of Wiio’s Laws is summed up in his first law:

“Communication never works,
except by accident.”

(At the bottom of this post, I’ve included all seven laws and corollaries.)

Specifically, it is the 4th Corollary to the first law that, early in my previous career as a full-time producer of professional puffery, became the framework for my understanding and explanation of why so much of the messaging and marketing that originates in the halls of power at large corporations, organizations and government, reaches the rest of us in the form of condescending, indecipherable gibberish and spinglish (“spin” + “english”).

Here is the 4th Corollary of Osmo Wiio’s 1st Law of Communications Failure:

  • “If you are content with your message, communication certainly fails.”

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering: How can being content with your message mean it will fail?

However, when it comes to communications, Osmo Wiio taught us that it doesn’t matter how much you fall in love with what you’re saying — it only matters what the recipient determines he or she has heard (or seen, et al). And the more you love what you are saying, the more likely it has been crafted to please you (or your CEO) than the intended audience.

What I learned from Osmo Wiio

For my entire career, a recurring duty of my job has been to inform clients (and myself) in a wide variety of delicate ways that I believe the part of their message pleasing them the most is not going to be comprehended or appreciated by the audience. You’re not writing for them, I say.*

To help me explain this in a delicate way, I’ve evoked Osmo Wiio by saying something like:

“It’s like Osmo Wiio says, the success of communication does not hinge on how effectively and brilliantly you say what you want to say. The success of communication is determined 100% by what the recipient of your message hears. The more you and I love what we have to say, the more an alarm bell should go off in our head that begs us to ask ourselves, ‘Who are we writing this for?’ Chances are, we’re writing it for ourselves”

The following is based on a true story

About 30 years ago, when I was first starting out in my life-long quest to one day be endorsed as a content marketer on LinkedIn, I found myself in a very formal presentation setting where I was proposing what turned out to be the first “custom magazine” I ever published  — an employee magazine with a circulation of 30,000 for a fast-growing publicly-traded financial services business. As part of the development of the magazine, I had traveled around the country to meet with executives and employees of many of the companies that had been acquired by the fast-growing potential client.

I don’t recall why, but the proposal process ended up with me presenting our ideas to the company’s CEO, one of those bigger-than-life people who always have a group of loyal handlers in tow. At one point during the presentation, the CEO asked me how the magazine could help spread his values.

Having just learned about Wiios laws, I set aside the prepared presentation and started ad-libbing (something that has gotten me into trouble more often than not, over the years since, but it worked that day):

“If you want to be successful at spreading your values to your employees, I’ve got to be honest and tell you what I’ve learned from visiting all of the companies you’ve acquired. The senior managers of those companies are afraid of you–they think you’re some kind of cowboy and you are going to fire them.

“Chances are, they’ll trash the magazines you ship to them and not let employees or customers see them if they have anything about you or your values in it.” And then I said, as if channeling Osmo Wiio, “If we create a magazine about how great you and your values are, it will likely fail. However, if you let us go find employees at the companies you are acquiring who are already demonstrating your values in action and make them the heroes of the magazine, I think you’ll have a magazine that will flank those managers and convey your values.

And then I said something that came out of left-field or Finland, “I think we should avoid having a photo of you, or even mentioning your name in the magazine for at least a year after the magazine starts being published. You’ll say more by not being in the magazine than you will if you look like you are using it to preach to the employees.”

Had I not been so young and stupid, I would have noticed the CEO’s entourage turning pale and looking ready to pounce on me. But in one of those perfect moments that you remember 30 years later when writing a blog post, the CEO slammed his palm down on the table and said, “that’s exactly what we should do.”

I had communicated, quite by accident, what Osmo Wiio’s teachings are all about.

And, in a lucky set of circumstances, my recommendation worked and soon that CEO made an outrageous amount of money when an even bigger company acquired his (who, in turn, fired us).

I became a true-believer in Osmo Wiio for life for I discovered that even CEOs love to learn why people always seem to misunderstand the brilliant things they are saying.

After you can explain it to them in a way that allows the CEO to know that he or she can craft a brilliant message that fails because the audience is listening in a different way, they begin to see how they need to think differently about how (and for whom) to craft their message.

Osmo Wiio will be missed, but his rules will live forever, even if by accident.

Osmo Wiio’s Laws for Communications Failure:

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.

If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage.

There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant with your message.

The more we communicate, the worse communication succeeds.

  • The more we communicate, the faster misunderstandings propagate.

In mass communication, the important thing is not how things are but how they seem to be.

The importance of a news item is inversely proportional to the square of the distance.

The more important the situation is, the more probably you forget an essential thing that you remembered a moment ago.

*As most of my “professional” writing is for others, I long ago decided to make this blog the one place where I write for myself. I accepted long ago that this blog communicates very little to anyone, except by accident.