Wake Up, The Medium IS The Message!

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medium is the message

The details are not the details, they make the product” Charles Eames

Not too long ago, I was at one of those giant book marketing events and a string of speakers included some variation of the message…

“Your book is the medium, not the message.”

They recommended spending less energy on crafting your message, keeping it simple or “good enough,” then focusing the bulk of your energy on repurposing that message into as many “distribution” vehicles as possible.

“Don’t focus so much on crafting the language or making a gorgeous book,” they’d say, “just make it good enough to distribute a million different ways.” Thing is…I completely disagree with this philosophy.

The medium IS the message…or, at least it plays a pivotal role.

And this applies as much to books as it does to blogs, videos, movies, audio and any other format designed to help convey the message. Let’s take a simple example.

One of my fundamental messages is, “achievement requires action.”

But you’ll rarely hear me say it like that. Because, I care deeply about language. I am obsessed with it. I break every rule of grammar, but I do it with deliberation and purpose.

So, my medium, on a fundamental level, isn’t dance, art, video, music, or something else, it’s writing and speaking. And I know the words I choose to convey my message will have a dramatic effect on its meaning, it’s impact and its reach.

The way I craft the words I choose make the message what it is.

They aren’t just the medium. So, instead, I might say something like, “if you wan’t something in life, stop bitching about it, get off your ass and DO something to get what you want. Thinking, dreaming and talking simply aren’t enough.”

Same general message, but the words, phrasing, patterns create a different sensory, and emotional experience. They alter the way the message is experienced and, in doing so, they are a critical element of the message.

But, let’s take this out to more of a macro-scale.

I blog and I just finished a book. Beyond the words I choose, are these just vehicles of distribution for my message? No friggin’ way!

Every element of my book and blog’s look and feel deliver a strong subliminal context for the words on the page or screen.

Which is why I worked so hard to create a design for my blog, when so many other bloggers told me to just put up any old design and start writing.

And, I have been very involved in every aspect of the design of the book, because I know how critical it is to the way a reader experiences the fundamental message within (okay, that, and the fact that I have a bit of an issue with control).

These design has a direct effect on the message, it sets the tone and energy for the content.

A poorly designed book with an uninspired cover tells the reader the author either doesn’t care or they don’t get human nature. This perception becomes a subtext for the entire book, subliminal as it may be, and has a profound effect on both the message and the author’s credibility.

In fact, subtle design elements can have such profound impact on he way someone experiences the message, multinational corporations spend millions to tweak packaging in an effort to make people experience the identical product differently.

Design and packaging can even affect your physiology.

In Malcom Gladwell’s Blink, he revealed how subtle changes to the design and color on a beverage can actually caused the people who drank the beverage to believe they were tasting a different drink. They developed a preference they though was based on taste, but the only difference was design. You heard that right. The packaging, the medium, actually altered the perception of taste.

Let’s take it even one step broader, because my very choice of medium affects my message.

I can take the identical message and choose a wide variety of media to distribute that message. Which media I choose will actually speak to who I am and, again, create a subliminal subtext that will influence the way people perceive and experience that message.

So, if I choose a blog, that says to people I have a certain amount of tech-savvy and I am in the blogging-know and people will then experience my message in the context of this knowledge. If I choose video, that again sends a message. And, if I choose vimeo or viddler over youtube, we add to the subtext.

All these choices about the medium influence how the message is experienced and understood.

If I choose to publish my message in magazine versus a book or an e-book, each choice of media conveys information about who I am and subtly alters the experience of the message.

The affect of each of these choices of medium might be very subtle, but added together, they can profoundly change the way people experience your message.

Final story about how publishers feel about this issue, at least how mine felt.

When I first met by book editor, we were having a lovely lunch and talking about what mattered to each of us. I then shared my strong rejection of the notion that the book is just the medium, not the message.

Her response…”My God, I am sooooo happy you feel that way!”

So, what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Somewhere in the middle? What am I missing?

Bring it on…

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13 responses

13 responses to “Wake Up, The Medium IS The Message!”

  1. Well said! I am so happy to see that integrity trumps “the new business model”. As always, I am impressed with the the self knowledge you possess to understand your message and the subtlety of medium as to how you wish to be perceived. Interesting take on perception being reality.

  2. Interesting theory. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. The book is a medium, but it sure does deliver the message differently than a magazine or a blog.

    I think I’ll have to disagree with you. I mean, what is the message? Is it the cover of the book or the content? Is it the core idea of the book? Than the book is just a medium for an idea that can be spread in so many different ways. But the medium is a very important factor in how the message is perceived and understood. Every word does matter, the tone, the style, the whole package.

    You could get your nutrition from a pill, but it wouldn’t be the same as eating it at a gourmet restaurant with candle light and live dinner music. But the dinner doesn’t become the nutrition by that.

  3. Well, I can definitely tell you that I will be paying much more attention to the design and layout of your book than I otherwise would.

  4. Which reminds me… I read an article (I wish I could remember where!) in which the blogger stated that he wanted an ugly blog with uninspiring articles. That way, people clicked on his ads instead of additional articles – and he makes bank off of that money.

    What you are describing means that you have integrity regarding your ideas, articles, and products. No way is that a bad thing!

  5. Shama Hyder says:

    Jonathan, my boy, I believe the medium SPEAKS volumes about the message-but may not necessary be the exact same as the message.

    = )

  6. Kelly says:


    I feel like there are mixed metaphors here.

    The medium is a vehicle for the message. It isn’t the message.

    This does NOT in any way change the fact that “God is in the details,” as Mies van der Rohe said. I love Eames’ quotation, also.

    The message should be both well-crafted and finely tuned to your chosen medium. Your book should be the best book you can create, not a book that feels like it was once a PowerPoint or a blog article.

    I picked up a book by [well respected marketers who also blog] not too long ago, and was appalled to realize that 90% of what was in it was straight from their blog.

    It wasn’t so much that I’d read it all before (irritating), as it was that a blog article does not usually have the depth or the permanence to belong, verbatim, in a work I pay 35 bucks for. If the thoughts are sound enough for a book, great. They still must be expanded, tweaked, and crafted to suit the medium. It felt like their editor decided to take a weekend and put together a book to scam folks, knowing that our collective standard for writing has changed somewhat in the era of blogs.

    The medium certainly affects the message, as you say. I think a message CAN be repurposed, but I despise “good enough” mentality and I definitely think that at each moment, the message should be tuned again to the vehicle you choose, not just shoved into a medium it’s not suited to.

    “Achievement requires action.” Look, you said it again without saying it! A great work in any medium requires focus, craft, detail-orientation. We all need to be reminded of that.



  7. GirlPie says:

    Personally, I prefer the progressive and inspiring “achievement requires action” over the long-winded and naggy “if you want something in life, stop bitching about it, get off your ass and DO something to get what you want. Thinking, dreaming and talking simply aren’t enough.”

    However, to your point of “medium is [partly the] message” — I’d suggest that the size and permanence and historic use of the book form says different things about your content, before I ever read a word, than does an eBook or a magazine-formatted series of chapters… we think about a feature film on the big screen differently than we do a TV-movie… so yes, packaging the content IS an aspect of the content. At least in my biz it is. Thanks for starting the smart discussion.

  8. Of course the medium in the message.

    I can see where there is some confusion. Selling books (or anything) is not always about the content, medium or message.

    Marketing is about fulfilling the wants and desires or your customers (readers) and giving them the experience they want.

    You can’t measure the value of a book by the number of words in it, and you can’t judge a message by the medium.

  9. zania says:

    Hi Jonathan,
    Interesting discussion.
    Yes, the way we package our message is important and will vary according to our audience.
    And I agree that the way the message is presented can affect the audience’s perception of that message, or, at least, it can affect how the audience perceives the message before they actually read it and to some extent, afterwards).
    And therefore the medium will affect how many people actually receive the message in the first place.

    However, no one in that audience will receive the message the same way, however it is conveyed, as they will bring their life experiences to bear, not only on the medium, but the message itself.
    That’s when it gets even more complicated…

    And I prefer ‘achievement requires action’ too. It actually makes me think more than the longer example 🙂

  10. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Everyone – great discussion, gang! A few quick thoughts (pre-coffee).

    One, on writing “achievement requires action,” instead of the longer sentence, I should probably qualify my thoughts a bit better.

    I would actually not automatically default to on or the other. Rather, I’d look at the nature of the market I am writing to and choose the expression most likely to convey the message in the way I believed that market would be most likely to experience the way I want it experienced.

    When I write, I often create a mental mock-up of a person to write to. And, depending on the intended use of the content, I’ll sometimes invest a substantial amount of time in researching the preferences, emotions and experiences of that person. I do this less here on the blog, but for copywriting or marketing, it is a fundamental piece of the puzzle.

    Two, I am not saying the medium and the message are identical. I AM saying the medium has such a strong influence on the fundamental expression of the message that it literally alters the experience of the message and, in doing so, it becomes a part of the message.

    So, the real take-away here is to invest yourself in the details of how you (a) express, (b) package and (c) distribute your message, because those elements don’t just ride along with your message, they shape your message.

  11. zania says:

    Yes, your post made it clear that you would change your message according to your perceived audience. I was simply saying which of the two addresses I would prefer.
    I would also imagine, that if addressing an audience by talking to them, you would change the way you present the message throughout the talk, as you pick up more about your audience.
    Of course you cannot do this with a book, or any written/typed medium, which would lead to more in depth research.

    However, in calling your post ‘Wake Up, The Medium IS The Message!’, but at the same time, telling us that the medium and the message are not identical, rather that the medium becomes a fundamental part of the message (rather than the whole), you were subtly altering our perceptions of your post 😉

  12. The interactions between writer (or speaker), written (or spoken) and reader (or listener) are complex. The analysis of such interactions is a field in itself. As others here have written, it is hard to control the meanings that flow between these entities. But as writers we continue to try!

  13. esther says:

    this reminded me of a quote (voltaire i think): “I present myself in a form suitable to the relationship i wish to achieve with you.” i can well believe that presentation shapes what is received, be it written message or personal behavior.