Posted by: Kristen Ridley | October 4, 2010

The Princess Bride’s lessons for communicators

I LOVE the movie “The Princess Bride”!! It’s one of the best movies EVER!! It’s smart, it’s funny, and it has something for absolutely everyone: men, women and children. If, by some shocking chance you have never seen this movie, stop reading this and go RIGHT NOW to rent, or better, buy this movie immediately!!

Okay, for those of you still with me, I watched The Princess Bride again last night for like the 147th time – it never gets old for me. While I was watching, it suddenly occurred to me that there are a number of lessons/reminders for communications people in that movie [you may be saying to yourself at this point: “What a kook! Why is she thinking about communications while she’s watching a movie?!” All I can say in my own defence, is when you’ve spent 8-10 hours a day, five days a week, for most of your adult life trying to improve the communications around you, it just kinda seeps into the rest of your life].

Anyway, in case there are some other “communication kooks” out there, I thought I’d share the lessons I saw in the most recent viewing. So, here they are:

Lessons for communicators found in The Princess Bride:

“As you wish”
Wesley says this to Buttercup, and as we’re told, what he’s really saying to her is “I love you”, i.e. an unspoken, but powerful underlying message that is far more than what the words alone communicate.

Communications message: YOU need to understand and manage the underlying, or unspoken messages implicit in whatever you say to your audiences too, if you hope to earn understanding or action from them. Sometimes, as communicators, we’re told to say certain things in certain ways by decision-makers. But it’s an important part of our jobs to be connected enough with our audiences that we can accurately anticipate how THEY will receive, and react to those messages.

If certain phrases or words are lightning-rods for your audiences, you need to be the advocate for those audiences, and convince the decision-makers to use better phrases or different, less contentious words. Because [trust me on this! I’ve been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt!!] if you don’t understand and address those underlying messages in your communications, your audience will NOT hear what you’re trying to tell them, nor will they respond with the behaviour change or support for you and your organization’s messages that is the whole point of communicating in the first place.

Vezzini says this numerous times during the movie, but every time he does, whatever he’s saying is inconceivable has just happened. Finally, at one point, after he’s just exclaimed: “Inconceivable!” yet again at something that’s happened Inigo Montoya turned to Vezzini with a very puzzled look on his face and says: “You keep using that word. I do not think that word means what you think it means.” Clearly, Vezzini is using a word to describe something other than what it REALLY means.

Communication lesson: organizations have this same bad habit of using words in ways that either obscure, or, worse, completely misrepresent what they are REALLY saying.

For example, we say “we’re facing a challenge” when all the people we’re talking to know full well that it’s not a challenge at all, it’s really a problem, and worse, it’s a problem that we’re probably going to ask them to deal with or fix. It’s bad enough when we hand our audience a negative message or reality. It’s MUCH worse, from their perspective anyway, when we also try to convince them it’s rainbows and unicorns.

Because pulling this foolishness – and it IS foolishness, because the only people we’re fooling with this tactic is ourselves if we really think anybody buys it! – just makes our audience angrier by treating them like they’re too dumb to understand that we’re pulling the proverbial wool over their eyes about a negative situation. Treat your audiences like the intelligent, adult, committed people they are and give them the straight goods. If it’s a problem, admit it’s a problem and tell them WHY you need their help to fix or mitigate it. People respect straight-talk, and they are far more likely to get behind your plan if they feel like respected members of a team, rather than the dense patsies you’re scamming into taking the rap.

“No kissing!”
The grandson exasperatedly proclaims this early in the movie, while the grandfather is telling him the story. Being a little boy, naturally kissing is gross, and he doesn’t want to hear anything about it.

Communication lesson: The corporate equivalent to this is kissing up to your audience, by not telling them the whole story – figuratively patting them on the head and telling them management has everything under control and they don’t need to worry their pretty little heads about anything.

The justification for this is usually either: a) the employees don’t really want to hear about all this bad news, or b) the employees don’t need to know about this situation. The truth is the majority of employees want to help the organization succeed. To do that, they DO want, and need, to know what the organization is facing, both in successes and in challenges, so they can contribute.

Treating employees like children instead of the adult, professional members of your business they are, will not only NOT keep them happily toiling away in the trenches, oblivious to the issues the company may be facing, but could actually turn them into active critics of your organization out in the world which is definitely NOT what you need if you are already facing challenges. Your employees should be ambassadors for your business, not its harshest critics. So don’t allow yourself to pretend you’re doing them a favour by not telling them what’s going on, and even more importantly, how they can help move the business forward.

“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” You can probably figure out that this line is said by Inigo Montoya. He says this over and over to the man who killed his father when he finally finds him, as he chases the guy [who as a big stinking coward, runs away] around the castle trying to get him to duel fair and square. Inigo says this so repetitiously because it’s a tremendously important message for him, and he really needs the rotten guy who killed his father to understand the significance of it before he kills him.

Communication message: Ok, so you’re not likely to be trying to kill your audiences, but that doesn’t mean the messages you’re trying to share with them are any less significant than Inigo Montoya’s are, at least as far as your business is concerned. The reason our job exists at all is because our organizations need their audiences to know certain things, and to, hopefully, do certain other things as a result of knowing the things we tell them.

Delivering those messages with consistency and focus, in as many channels as is possible, and that make sense based on your environment is a good way to get those messages into the heads of busy, overworked people who have hundreds of messages competing for their attention on any given day.

Obviously, you don’t want to sound like a parrot, but you do want to take advantage of as many of the channels available as you can, especially for the REALLY important messages [hint: “important” is in the eye of the beholder, i.e. your audience, as much as it is in the eye of your leadership team, so be judicious in using this approach. Remember the boy who cried wolf? Yeah, you don’t want to be him if your objective is to connect with your audiences successfully!]

“It doesn’t sound too bad, I’ll try and stay awake.”
The grandson says this to the grandfather early in the movie, when the grandfather offers him the book with the story of the Princess Bride, and, being a boy who is more interested in video games than books, isn’t very excited about the idea of reading a book. But, when the grandfather assures him there are sword-fights, torture, and fist-fights, the boy magnanimously agrees to put up with what his grandfather wants to tell him.

Communication lesson: Newsflash: This is pretty much EXACTLY how our audiences feel about the stuff we want to tell them, too. The typical corporate environment isn’t exactly rife with thrilling, swash-buckling, clever repartee and sigh-inducing romance. No, mostly what we get to give our audiences is stuff like: “we are focused on leveraging our strategic opportunities”, and “differentiating our multi-leveled offerings in the marketplace will take us to the next level.” If you think your audiences will even consider “try[ing] to stay awake” for that, then I would LOVE to talk to you about this fabulous bridge that’s for sale in New York!

And the worst part of this is that IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY!!! It really isn’t that hard to de-jargonize our information and make it more real, which automatically makes it more engaging, because they can actually figure out what the hell you’re trying to say to them, and – here’s the really key part – why they should care! The best litmus test I’ve ever come up with to do this is having someone outside your company [obviously someone trustworthy!] who you can lean on to review your corporate messages, and tell you whether he/she has a clue what you’re trying to get across. If an outsider gets it and doesn’t roll their eyes at you when they get to the end, then you’re well on your way to having a useful document for your internal folks.

There they are – the lessons in The Princess Bride for communicators. Are any of these earth-shaking news-flashes? No. But, for some reason we keep seeing these things out in the corporate world time and again. Obviously, we aren’t consistently getting the message, or, at least we aren’t doing what we all need to do if we want communications to be effective and successful in our organizations. So, I don’t think we can remind ourselves often enough about how important these basics are, and that as communicators we need to continuously focus on making them happen.

And, so the beat goes on. As Scarlett O’Hara said at the end of Gone With The Wind: “Tomorrow is another day.” I, the corporate communicator, hereby solemnly swear that tomorrow, I will make these things happen for my organization.

Would you care to join me?



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jennifer Wah, Kristen Ridley. Kristen Ridley said: The Princess Bride's lessons for communicators. New post: […]

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