The Message is Bigger Than the Medium

Powerful ideas bend to any bottle

As a fairly recent member of the freelance workforce, I put my name in with a local creative talent agency that periodically sends out openings for one-off gigs and longer-term positions in my field (writing, editing, and communications strategy).

I was struck, as soon as I started receiving these gig descriptions, by the rigid silos of skillsets listed in the “candidate requirements” section.

  • Must have 2–5 years agency experience
  • Must have extensive B2B experience
  • Must have a minimum 3 years’ experience writing catalog descriptions for outdoor lifestyle products

It’s become the norm these days to put our skill sets into conceptual silos.

Some of us are marketing people, some of us do newsletters, others excel at social media. Some of us thrive in the digital realm, others in print.

This is OK to a point — it makes sense, after all, to tell the story of what we’re good at and what value we bring to the table.

The problem is when we start taking all of this too seriously — when we really think there’s an enormous gap between writing, for instance, a long-form narrative and web copy. Both tell stories, both use patterns of symbols and spoken sounds in arrangements that we all agree have meaning.

The real trick is understanding the different audiences and goals of different messages — and how language reaches those audiences and achieves those goals..

Marshall McLuhan famously wrote that “the medium is the message.” In other words, we need to pay attention to the tools we use to tell each other stories. This was particularly true with the revolution that TV brought us, when our pictures started to move in our houses and changed the way we think.

A generation later, Neil Postman took it a step further and wrote that “the medium is the metaphor.” He was sounding an alarm for all of us, just a few years before the internet really took off, that our technology was leading us to view everything as entertainment.

Television, in this reckoning, is a passive experience that discourages critical thinking. Our phones and computers, if we take it to the next step, could be even more numbing.

Postman was famously prescient on that score. The more information comes at us, the less able we are to prioritize it, and the more likely we are to look for diversion amid the roar.

But what if the opposite is increasingly true? What if the abundance of modern-day mediums is training us to be smarter about the message?

Authentic language makes itself heard these days like a clarion call burning through white noise. We all know that feeling, when a distilled truth makes itself heard — and it doesn’t matter whether it’s printed on a piece of paper, viewed on a screen, or coming through a podcast on our car stereo.

Our machines are learning the difference — Google’s algorithms have begun to see through cheap SEO tricks when ranking websites.

We’re learning the difference — instinctively ignoring clickbait and cheap content that would have drawn us in just a few years before.

Which is why we should be careful about defining ourselves in any one silo, whether it be marketing, digital, media, or what have you. Sure, specialization is good — but only up to a point.

What is increasingly working is the truth.

It’s hard to dig out, that essential narrative. It can be like mining for a rare ore amid mud and gunk.

But once you find it, it proves to be adaptable and versatile: You can write it out in long form, or you can distill it down to web copy. It makes for a great fundraising pitch, and a compelling story for the discerning consumer. It can be modified into sales funnel email marketing or a killer call to action on a landing page.

That’s the neat thing about the truth, when it’s clearly and powerfully stated — it’s endlessly adaptable to any medium. That’s why most of your favorite brands and influencers span video, social media, print publications, TED talks, podcasts, and live events. Their message is not confined to any particular medium (though it may be highlighted differently in each).

Distilling that message is the essential work of those of us who work with language and thought.

Because authenticity will always be stronger than diversion and entertainment, in the way that truth is stronger than lies.

Language is the best tool we have, both to shape and transmit ideas. And using it properly is the umbrella under which all message crafting falls — whether for digital, print, marketing, journalism, or art.

Even for writing product descriptions for outdoor lifestyle catalogs. Trust me, you want the copy describing that inflatable cooler to pop?

Get yourself a poet.


Quinton has spent the last 25 years as a professional storyteller. He is a communications specialist, writer, and editor of wide-ranging material including long-form journalism, contemporary fiction and nonfiction, arts criticism and magazine articles, and branded communications with extensive background in consulting and strategic ideation.

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