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Murphy’s Cousin, or the Third Law of Communications

Stop! Put down that pen and step back from the paper! Anything you write may be used against you. A few practical steps - and a healthy dose of humility - can help stop you doing something criminal.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

There are some things you can never learn enough. Near the top of that list for communicators is a close cousin of the famed Murphy’s Law,* or what I call the Third Law of Communications: If it can be misunderstood, it will be. Its ubiquity and regularity make it easy to commit an offence. A few examples:

  • Clarity: a message can be compromised if its meaning isn’t established early, clearly and simply. This can occur by packing in too much content, using mixed messaging, or choosing words that are clever not plain.

  • Language: a well-crafted message can be blunted if equal care isn’t taken to ensure translations have the original tonality and meaning.

  • Timing: a positive message (say, of gratitude) issued at the wrong time (at night, or on a holiday) can send a very different signal than the one intended.

In view of such considerations, crafting a successful message is a challenge that effective communicators learn to accept with humility. Indeed, overconfidence can be one of the greatest risks. I’ve often been frustrated and amused when an apparent flawless instruction had to be clarified after the original produced replies that completely ignored what we thought we’d requested. The natural instinct is to blame the recipient; as communicators, we know it’s on us. The Third Law strikes again!

If one cannot go beyond the Law, there are at least some simple things we can do to better respect it:

  • Ask: is the takeaway message clear and is it consistent with other relevant communications?

  • Revise: key to good writing is iteration; key to good videography is editing. Half the battle of communications is knowing what to leave out.

  • Challenge: invite a disinterested person to review your draft. Do not say “proofread”. Say, “be brutal”.

While you can never fully protect yourself against the Third Law, these steps help minimise risk. Any misunderstandings from that point are best taken as a broader lesson - perhaps relating to your team’s resource levels or the organisation’s working culture - rather than any reflection on this particular item. In that case, your message has met even more success than planned, and this reveals the deeper value of the Third Law: not just as a guide for sharper communication but the best route for feedback and continuous improvement.

Okay, you can pick up that pen again now and be on your way. Just remember to stay on the right side of the law.


*Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it will. (Source)

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