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Flash Over Substance

Is the medium still the message?

By Mary Charleson

When Marshall McLuhan, noted Canadian philosopher on communication theory, coined the famous phrase “The medium is the message” in 1964, he was ahead of his time. He was also astute in his observations about our becoming a “global village” in a time prior to the Internet and social media.

We do live in an era where the medium has become the message. Where, for example, choosing to read a daily newspaper on a tablet versus a broadsheet hard copy can fundamentally alter how we interact with the content. The way we now find out about world events, facilitated by social media, bottom-up citizen reporting, and multimedia interactivity has fundamentally changed the message. Arguably, as technology advances, there is little chance of turning back. The form of the medium now embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship where the medium itself influences the message.

For meeting planners, the speakers selected become the medium for the meeting or conference message. Getting it right is critical. Increasingly, it’s not only the speaker and their message, but also the technology they employ that have become part of that message.

Techno Distraction
The very presence of technology and the temptation to use it at times to excess can blur the line between what is message and what is medium. Frankly, if used poorly to communicate key messages, technology can be a distraction.
Ponder the criminal abuse of PowerPoint, when the use of excessive tables, charts and bullet points, turns a presentation into a projected document, relegating the presenter to a talking puppet while the audience reads the content on screen. Audiences will either listen to what a presenter is saying or read the slides themselves. They won’t do both because we tend to focus on one stream of verbal communication at a time. Listening and reading are conflicting activities.

Then, there’s the use of Prezi and the frequently induced visual vertigo. Audience members should not need seasickness medication to attend a presentation. Excessive transition movement and animation can be terribly distracting.

Finally, there’s the equivalent of the photo essay on screen that leaves us laughing but unable to remember any content several hours later. That’s a style-over-substance offence in the other direction.

Of course, all these assume that technical glitches don’t render the speaker unable to deliver without the on-screen prompts when a presentation fails to sync with the projector.

In all of these examples, the medium has become the message, but it’s not a message the presenter wanted to convey at all.

Consider the powerful orator who stands before a crowd and transfixes them with simple words, gestures, tone of voice and delivery. Using metaphors, strong visuals and storytelling, emotion moves the audience to action.

Getting Back to the Message
So how did we get to a point where the medium has often become a visual distraction to the message? Ian Brown wrote an interesting piece in the Globe and Mail about how we have become a society lost in digital translation. He was musing how it could be that as an adjudicator in the 2013 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival photography competition, that in a sea of thousands of photos submitted, there was only mediocrity. His take was that digital photography had encouraged the recording of events, immediate sharing and the ability to know what had been recorded. He contrasted that to film days when photographers captured a moment that told a story, and the mystery of that moment having been captured or not, was not revealed until much later when photos were developed. He was not necessarily arguing a return to old technology, but was acknowledging the loss of a keen artistic eye seeking out mystery and a story to share.

I would argue that this notion of abundance rather than scarcity that digitized media has enabled, has transcended our lives on many levels. It has become a catalyst for the inability to edit presentations ruthlessly. As a society, we have become so programmed to capture and share via social media and digital content that we are losing our ability to edit content and tell compelling stories. Hiding behind or simply interacting with PowerPoint or Apple Keynote has become a default accompaniment while on stage for some speakers.

Are You Talking to Me?
Two books, that I have turned to time and again are slideology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations and Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences. Both books are by Nancy Duarte, who has shaped the perception of leading brands and thought leaders such as Adobe, Cisco, Facebook, GE, Google, HP, Al Gore, Microsoft, TED and Twitter. Her basic thesis is this: Speakers should only project material on screen that helps the audience remember the message. Great slides should serve as a visual aid to support the presenter.

While these books are a great how-to-guide, they also have relevance for meeting planners. As a meeting planner, how do you define your audience? While some messages have to reach people of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs, others have a narrow target audience. Since the speaker you select is indeed the medium for your message, you want one who will understand the target audience, their needs and fears, and who will build trust and establish an emotional connection. Duarte proposes building audience personas. It will not only help you select the right speaker, it will also help you communicate to the speaker who they need to connect with when on stage. These key questions will help you do that:

•    What are they like?
•    Why are they here?
•    What keeps them up at night?
•    How can you solve their problem?
•    What do you want them to do?
•    How might they resist?
•    What’s the best way to reach them?

Less is More
If we accept the notion of abundance that digitized media has created and we acknowledge our inherent inability to edit, then I would propose that it is the job of speakers to take audiences to a point of scarcity, both with their message and their use of presentation media.

We now live in an era where less is becoming more valuable than more, simply because increasingly people will crave thought leaders to edit and make sense of it all. The message and the selected medium should subscribe to that.

There have been huge leaps in technology through which messages can now be communicated that have enabled many speakers to explore alternative delivery modes such as webinars and live-interview call-ins. Shrinking conference budgets have also left meeting planners reconsidering delivery modes. Used well, these tools expand reach and audience influence exponentially. On some level, that has to be a good thing, but I would invite you to ask yourself that critical question as a potential audience member, “How will the delivery medium affect the message?” You want to be very clear on how the use of technology will compliment the message, not become the message. The same rules still apply. Different mediums may require an adjustment of content.

So to answer the question, “Is the medium still the message?” we need to consider the role of speakers. Their job is to edit information, propose ideas and transform them to simplicity. Speakers are communication catalysts who take audiences from a place of abundance to one of scarcity through insight and clarity. They need to use simple stories to transfix an audience, seamlessly bringing them to action. They should strive for the visual that is worth 1,000 words and where only a few words on the screen might be enough or where PowerPoint isn’t needed at all – where the speaker is both the medium and the message.

Mary Charleson is a marketing strategist, speaker and consultant. She is the author of Five-Minute Marketing and recently released, Word of Mouth Mouse & Mobile.

Appeared in Speaking of Impact, Fall 2013 Edition

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