Want Your Message to Get Attention? Think Like a Telegraph Operator

I finally got to see Lincoln this weekend, Steven Spielberg’s stunning portrayal of the President’s battle to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. Among the film’s most powerful scenes, there are several moments when all action pauses for a telegraph transmission. Tension mounts as the telegraph receives a string of Morse Code beeps and the critical news is translated—the outcome of a key battle, the House vote on the Amendment’s fate.

We take instantaneous messaging for granted today. But during the Civil War, the telegraph had only been in use for some 20 years; Western Union had just laid the first transcontinental telegraph cable in 1861. Operators needed be proficient in Morse Code, the series of dots and dashes, transmitted as short beeps and long beeps, that represent each letter of the alphabet.

Messages were short, focused and aimed at a very specific audience, then communicated in person or hand-carried to the intended recipient. And for those reasons, quite effective.

Except for the medium, not so different from effective messaging today.

Here are a few lessons about messaging we can all learn from the days of the telegraph:

  1. Know your audience. It’s easy to send out any kind of message into cyberspace. But if you’re not clear about whom your trying to reach and what they care about—what information they would stop in their tracks to discover—chances are good no one will pay any attention.
  2. Convey your message in a way your audience understands. In the 19th century, not everyone knew Morse Code; they needed an operator who could translate telegraph transmissions. With the Internet, you can write anything you want and put it online, publish it via emails, your blog and other social media. But if you’re using lingo or a language style that the people you want to reach don’t share, your message will be dismissed as unintelligible beeps.
  3. Keep it focused. Whether by telegraph or Internet, short, simple and clear add up to a memorable message that sticks.
  4. Time your message to arrive when people are looking for the information you want to provide. There are cycles in every business. Everyone’s looking for bargains right now before the holidays. After New Year’s, people look for ways to fulfill their resolutions to lose weight and get fit. In January and February, people in cold climates begin to plan for vacations in warmer ones. These are the obvious cycles. Whatever messaging you do, understand when those you want to help need it most, and set your schedule accordingly.

Bottom line: Our technology certainly has evolved, but the essence of human communication hasn’t.

End of transmission.

Marketing consultant Evelyn Herwitz loves to help you tell a great story about your great work. She specializes in search-optimized web content that positions you as an approachable expert in your field and helps you grow your business. Contact Evelyn for a free half-hour consult for new clients.

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