Everyone knows the funny-but-true Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” But have you ever heard of “Wiio’s Laws of Communication”? They are from the late Osmo Wiio, a Finnish author, parliamentarian and the head of the School of Communications at the University of Helsinki. Here is 1.4 of Wiio’s Laws:

“If you are content with your message, it will surely fail.”

Osmo Wiio, (1928–2013)
 

Wait a minute. Let me read that again. You mean this post I’ve just spent hours crafting and now love is doomed to failure? In a humorous way, Osmo Wiio (like Murphy before him) suggests that yes, if you love your message, it will fail. Here’s why:

  1. Communication takes place between human beings.
  2. The human being who is the recipient of the message always determines whether the communication is understood.
  3. If the communication pleases the sender (or the sender’s boss), then it was writen for the sender, not the recipient.
  4. Communication that works is developed for the recipient, not the sender.

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An example of Wiio’s law in everyday business

Look at the last promotional message—a newsletter, blog post, advertisement—that you created. How much of it is about how great your company and your products and services are?

What about it do you love? Is it the part where you list all your product’s features and recite all of the selling points?

Now think about the recipient. Do you think a message written to please you is the same message that would please them?  The answer is no. We know that because it’s part of Wiio’s Laws.

Today’s Lesson from Professor Wiio:

If you want communication to work, write it for the recipient, not for yourself.


The Full Set of Wiio’s Laws

Osmo Wiio was a lifelong academic who focused on the study of communications. However, for a brief stint in the 1970s, he was elected to serve in the Finnish Parlament. It was his observation of, and frustration with, the lack of successful communication that takes place within the context of government bureaucracy and the “sausage making” nature of law-making that he used this humorous approach to explaining why communication fails.

Wiio’s laws are often narrowed down to this fundamental message: Communication usually fails, except by accident. Here is the full set of laws:

  1. Communication usually fails, except by accident.
    1. If communication can fail, it will.
    2. If communication cannot fail, it still most usually fails.
    3. If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there’s a misunderstanding.
    4. If you are content with your message, communication certainly fails.
  2. If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage.
  3. There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant with your message.
  4. The more we communicate, the worse communication succeeds.
    1. The more we communicate, the faster misunderstandings propagate.
  5. In mass communication, the important thing is not how things are but how they seem to be.
  6. The importance of a news item is inversely proportional to the square of the distance.
  7. The more important the situation is, the more probably you forget an essential thing that you remembered a moment ago.

A commentary on Wiio’s Laws can be found here.