Message in a Bottle

“Walked out this morning / Don’t believe what I saw / A hundred billion bottles / Washed up on the shore.” Do you believe it? Think of every email, memo, research report, slide deck, text… all of it. “A hundred billion castaways / Looking for a home.” How are we supposed to stand out? How are we supposed to connect? Here’s some basic “message” questions I want to be better at asking along the lines of controlled – participatory, authenticity sensitivity, and upstream – downstream that we’ve been thinking about this week. The Police hit “Message in a Bottle” seemed appropriate.

Take your message and look at it. How will people interact with it? Will they read the note in the bottle, put it back in, and chuck it back into the sea? That’s controlled. Read the note, pass it to a friend who “needs to see this,” and/or write a Facebook post about it? That’s participatory. Basically we’re asking if it is to be shared, how will it likely be shared?

If we’re sending “an SOS to the world,” what’s the perceived authenticity sensitivity of our audience? How personal should this message be, both towards ourselves and the reader? Participatory can be engagement with an audience of one, or it can be engagement with a broader topic/sentiment/whatever (“Seems I’m not alone at being alone”). This influences the recipient, who becomes a potential messenger.

In some cases we might have a controlled message that a messenger can add additional meaning/authenticity too, creating a participatory pivot (example, how the Weinstein news pivoted to #MeToo). These might be harder to predict and fall into Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan theory, but we can also try to create this type of optionality for them. Ryan Holiday’s book “Perennial Seller” gets into greater detail on that topic.

Is this a message that starts and stays upstream with a targeted and narrow audience, or will it move downstream, and to who? Will it float downstream or need to be passed downstream? How do we want it to move or not to move? Do we want the recipients to pass the message with or without amending it? Do we want the recipients to be inspired to create their own message and credit ours as a source?

We want to be aware of the objective. We can write more than one note, and toss out more than one bottle. There’s plenty of room to experiment and fail, but it seems important to know at least generally what you’re aiming to accomplish. It’s foolish to predict all the way to the end, but you can plan towards a base case. How often do you have that level of intent?

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