skip to main content

When communications get lost in translation


A favourite film of mine is Sofia Coppola's 2003 'Lost in Translation' starring Bill Murray. I won't get into the plot but, typical of Bill Murray movies, people either love it or hate it. In a sense it underlines a theme of the movie – what I might think is the meaning in my message, is not necessarily what you think I mean.

I suspect we miscommunicate more often than not. I doubt we do it deliberately most of the time, but it's likely to simply be a consequence of the filters through which people receive messages and the imprecision that accompanies most communications.

Think about this story. A couple of close and long standing friends encounter each other on the street. One is driving a car and is giving a cheerful wave to the other, standing on the roadside. The view from the car is crystal clear and the roadside friend is only a short distance away and appears to have eye contact with the car driver. However the roadside friend can only see sun glare on the windscreen and doesn't respond because he can't see his friend waving.

Has that ever happened to you? The person in the car can assume their friend has snubbed them and there can be any number of reasons. A clarification is avoided with the consequence that a good friendship comes to an end.

It is often said that the first key to marketing and communications is understanding your audience. It's also about knowing that emotion communicates more effectively than rational logic. So it follows that tapping into an audience's emotional side can get to the heart more precisely.

Consider this example. I was once asked to help a finance company promote a superannuation product. They couldn't work out why their previous promotion wasn't working, with the headline; "Flexible Superannuation makes it easy". After all, they'd done their research which apparently demonstrated that their target audience wanted more flexibility in their superannuation, so the headline seemed to offer a great benefit.

What superannuation buyers actually wanted was more choice in the way superannuation could be applied to their needs. So the new and much more successful headline said; "Superannuation you tailor to your needs."

There's a key difference, and it's not just in the word "you". "Flexibility" is simply a feature of the product and therefore a more rational communication. It also opened it up to misinterpretation – many people thought "flexibility" might mean loose and unfocused. On the other hand; "tailored to your needs" cuts to the true benefit from the viewer's perspective and therefore offered an emotional connection.

Getting messages 'lost in translation' is all too understandable and easy to do, which goes to show that care is needed. But the good news of the new media era is that we have the means to listen to audiences and correct immediately when mistakes occur.

Perhaps, the car driver should have asked his friend why he didn't respond, rather than unnecessarily close off communication and end a good friendship.

Related items

BLOG POST: Why? Good marketing hinges on just one word

BLOG POST: If you're communicating, first have an idea 

BLOG POST: A case for innovation and ideas in everything 

BLOG POST: Stop trying to sell and start a relationship 

BLOG POST: Communicate for freedom


About the author

Fraser Carson is a respected communications and social media consultant, and commentator. He has particular experience and interest in community building, the not-for-profit sector and business development.

When communications get lost in translation

+ Text Size -

Skip to TOP

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the server!