Management Tips

What I learned about Communication from Cool Hand Luke

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Cool Hand Luke (original version) had a problem with communication and Strother Martin tried to set him straight but apparently as Strother so deliberately pointed out there are some men you just can’t reach. Since Cool Hand Luke that line has been used at least 17 times in a variety of films and television shows.

What was it that Cool Hand Luke, the coolest cat of his time, just DID NOT get?

Not sure so I went searching for answers. So, I found out about this guy named Mehrabian who conducted an experiment in 1967 and published some conclusions about communication that a lot of people believe. Thank gawd, mystery solved. But wait, as many people say those who believe Mehrabian’s conclusions have interpreted them incorrectly and ergo GOT IT ALL WRONG.

Look here and here and even here. There is a pantload (yes, pantload) of debunking going on.

For blahditty blah’s sake can someone tell me what the heck is right?

So here’s the scuttlebutt.

Mehrabian said something like this:

  • 7% of meaning is in the words that are spoken.
  • 38% of meaning is in the way that the words are said.
  • 55% of meaning is in facial expression.

Now before you get all pissed off or get all fired up I am not suggesting that this is gospel. After all, as I mentioned, this theory was cooked up in the 1960’s when there was no internet, email, social media, personal computers, smart phones and whew, making this point is getting tiring. So, what the heck was this all about? Personal interaction, without a device, in a time when the network of people you knew was limited to where you could get to by your means; walking, a car, bus or plane.

Fast forward to today.

How many people that you know have you never actually met face to face? And those that you’ve met how often do you see them and interact in the old fashion way (face to face)? Of course, many of us work in companies or businesses where personal interaction is ubiquitous to our jobs and critical to success but more and more often we communicate in many different ways.

What’s missing from this equation?


Where’s writing in all that? I guess the experiment Mehrabian did was looking for social cues based on, at that time, what we may now consider the traditional way of communicating; face to face. So, there you go. It’s easy. Just follow the rules and according to the scholarly please understand that the words do mean something but all those other social cues are just as important; the way you say it and how you look doing it. Better hope you look marvelous….dawwww-ling.

So, what about writing then?

How much writing do you do? Probably a lot more than you think. I write a lot; at work and at play (this is play, sort of). At work, I spend a ton of time writing and it’s mostly email these days. Yeah, I talk to people. A lot too. Probably too much for some people’s liking but I can’t escape the fact that virtual communication dominates a lot of our lives. Naturally, you can choose to avoid this type of communication but it won’t last. You’ll cave eventually and when you do please remember one thing; be clear.

Clear? That’s easy, right?

It’s not difficult to be clear, concise and to the point, is it? Well, it has been for me. I have been writing for years and years and not as a novelist or journalist but as a management professional in the design profession. I write for business everyday and I have had a s**tload of practice. I now write here to see if I can turn some of that practice into a fun way to share my thoughts about what I have learned over the years.

So, go ahead, tell me how I’m doing. Write me a response but before you do take a look at the following list and think about what I am suggesting. Do it your way or try out some of these ideas and be sure to tell me which worked for you.

Remember, I am not a Ph.D, an English Major, a novelist or a journalist. I am just a guy who has spent a lot of time in that fun and funky world of trial and error. After millions of words written (really, millions? Ah, who’s counting?) and countless years of writing emails, proposal responses, letters, memos and notes to my darling sweetheart I have got it down to a science. Or you’re going to tell me otherwise.

So, here it goes:

Be clear and concise. Fewer words are better and better words are few and far between. So, use them. Verbosity is crazy boring.

Understand who you are writing to. Write to people on their level and by level I mean avoid complicated language only you understand.

Limit your comments to the topic at hand. If you open a new can of worms that has nothing to do with the topic you will leave the reader confused. It happens ALL THE TIME.

Try to be nice. It’s simple. No further explanation necessary.

Humour is almost always appropriate. It’s good to keep some levity in the routine of the daily grind unless someone is really pissed at you. In that case the next point is hyper critical to your survival.

Respect is imperative. We all know treating people the way you want to be treated is a key to a fruitful existence and it goes the same for written communication.

Be real. Being true to yourself, what you know and your values will come across a heck of a lot more authentic that trying to fake something or trying to be someone your not.

Yes, yes, there’s nothing really there about grammar or syntax which we all know is important in communicating your message correctly. The technical part of writing is critical to maintain good written communication along with a myriad of other things such as context, and in some cases an editor. Many of us don’t have time or the means for an editor, however, even in your daily life simply asking a colleague an opinion on something that you’re not sure about can potentially save you some serious heartburn. So ask!

One last thought.

Go talk to your neighbours, colleagues and clients or pick up the phone and if you can’t then send them an email. There’s nothing better than a face to face when you get the chance specifically because of the Mehrabian observations. We spend so much time communicating virtually these days writing skills are really important but nothing beats that look of comfort, a smile or a laugh. Nothing.

: -)

What challenges have you had with written communication?

What are your writing tips? What have I missed?


About rdopping

interior design guy who loves other stuff; social media, photography, film, food and anything that is good for the growth of the self


4 thoughts on “What I learned about Communication from Cool Hand Luke

  1. Hey Ralph! I totally hear you in this post. It’s strange that we look at words as intimidating when they’re written in long form. But powerfully spoken words can take a long time to perform and be just as verbose. It’s all about whether you want to hear the message or not, I guess. I know that we writers looks at our words lovingly, though others don’t share that fantasy all the time. But like you said, the message rings true when you really put yourself into what you say…no matter what form. It’s great to see social come back in a meaningful way that just might change the way we do things…finally!

    Awesome as always, my friend. Just like I’m as verbose as ever. ha ha ; )

    Posted by Carolyn | January 27, 2012, 17:43
    • Thanks Carolyn,
      Very true. Social is very much about written communication but with video and podcast I suppose Mehrabian’s resulting rules are even more critical specifically if it is one way. Being true to yourself and reflecting that back in what you do is really one of the most critical points for me. Good to hear from you.

      Posted by rdopping | January 28, 2012, 08:35
  2. Ralph,

    Great article (or is post the correct term?). Two things jump out at me that warrant additional supporting arguments: the importance of brevity and the humour points.

    Brevity is critical as the sheer volume of communication increases (though the rules of Twitter don’t need to be applied verbatim to email).

    Humour is very difficult to communicate in email (particularly subtlety or ‘read between the lines’). There’s no eyebrow raise or devilish grin that accompanies electronic communicationl to clue the reader in to understanding the tone. And explaining the subtle humour removes the subtlety (catch-22, huh).


    Posted by James Rutherford | January 28, 2012, 07:56
    • Thanks James, that means a lot to me and yes, it’s considered a post. You make a very good point regarding brevity. Important. Trying to limit yourself to 140 characters is an interesting experiment. If you make the effort to not truncate words or use those dreaded acronymns then it is a good tool to learn how avoid being overly verbose.

      Homour is challenging I agree but I suppose we have to be able to avoid subtlty or read between the lines humour to avoid losing the point just as you suggested. I suppose we simply have to make it obvious, grasshopper. In order for it to be successful you really need to know your audience ergo I wouldn’t suggest humour if you just started a new business relationship. Clearly, it is not critical to inject humour into every message but it does offer some interest to challenge the routine.

      Posted by rdopping | January 28, 2012, 08:47

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