Successful Communication: The General Idea

Imagine you’re in seventeenth-century war-torn Europe. You’ve just been promoted to general in your nation’s army, and your first campaign involves re-capturing a highly fortified city from the enemy. Control of the city, which is nestled between two hills, is essential to winning the war.

Military strategists have determined the best chance of success is to split your army and encamp two groups on separate hills. You will command one group, and ranking general will oversee the second. Victory hinges on a coordinated, simultaneous attack from both of your forces. If either group attacks alone, the enemy will be able to repel and destroy said group.

The plan includes another major drawback. Your two groups aren’t in visual range of each other. The only way to communicate back and forth is to send someone through the valley (where the occupied city is) to deliver messages. Communication is essential because you can’t determine the best time to attack until you occupy your hilltop positions.

Upon taking your places, the other general surveys the city and sends a messenger to inform you to attack tomorrow at 10am. However, not knowing if the messenger avoided capture across the valley, he begins to hesitate. You receive the message and send a messenger back to confirm. But, like the first general, you don’t know if your messenger will make it, and begin to hesitate. Neither you nor the other general wants to risk attacking with any chance that your messages weren’t received.

You could keep sending messages back and forth to confirm each previous reception, but success of each delivery would be uncertain, and this could continue ad infinitum.

You’ve just witnessed a classic puzzle know as the Two Generals’ Problem. It’s often used in computer programming courses to demonstrate difficulties that arise in Transmission Control Protocol (TPC). After looking into this, I realized it also perfectly illustrates the importance of basic strategic communication in the age of social media, content marketing and business storytelling.

Communication requires a sender, message and receiver. Successful communication occurs when your message is:

1. Received by your target audience

2. Interpreted correctly

3. Evokes a (hopefully positive) response (thought, feeling, action)

The speed, convenience and prevalence of online communication often make organizations and individuals forget about these basic principles. Social media, blogs and videos have made it very easy to simply send out messages. As companies from start ups to established brands continue to embrace and use new digital platforms to communicate with the public, it remains important to think about the following questions:

1. Is our target audience receiving our messages? (Are we using the right channels to engage?)

2. Does our target audience understand our message? (Have we carefully crafted our messaging and story?)

3. Are messages causing our target audience to feel, think or act in a desired way? (Are we just tooting our horn, or sending out useful and compelling information?)

Like the generals, organizations should be using PR and digital communication to assess when and how to act e.g., release a product, issue an apology, offer stock, etc. We have a tremendous advantage over the generals though. If used correctly, PR used as a way to tell your story and engage in two-way communication allows you to determine if messages are being received understood and translated into positive thoughts and behavior. Conversations no longer have to take place through unreliable communication channels.

One similarity does still exist though. For both the seventeenth-century general and the twenty-first century organization, results can be disastrous for taking action before successful communication has occurred.