Say What? Lewis Carroll’s Cautionary Tale about Communication

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again.

“They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Slalom Consultant Carl Manello

Carl Manello is a Solution Lead for Program & Project Management based in Chicago who enjoys exploring how to tightly couple the art and science of project delivery with business operations.

Through The Looking Glass and Alice in Wonderland are two of my favorite books.  In fact, I have an annotated version of Lewis Carroll’s classics that tells the story behind the story, highlights the hidden meanings, historical significance and political references.  These were no simple children’s books! Alice’s conversation with Humpty Dumpty is a word lover’s tangle.

The attraction goes beyond logophiles. For example, in college my computer programming professor used Humpty’s dialogue to help illustrate the difference between data and meta data.  Really! Meta data in child’s book!  It is a great illustration.

However, my challenge to you now is less about programming and more about the care that needs to be taken in business communications. We understand what we mean to say, but we are obligated to take care that the messages we deliver are understood in the way we intend.

Project managers need to ensure that their communications are effective.  We should be mindful to change the method of communicating to maximize the likelihood that the message will be understood (see Linda Bourne’s piece entitled “The Right Words” in PM Network, March 2010, p.22 for a short article about this topic, complete with Humpty Dumpty reference).

Alice and Humpty Dumpty had some interesting challenges in communicating

The following is an exercise I have used in training classes and presentations that I have delivered to illustrate this point:

Think about the first thing that pops into your mind when you read the following word: DOG.

Did you think of your first dog? A Great Dane? A cute puppy? What about Cat?  Hotdog? Steven King’s killer Cujo? Benji, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin?  Randy Jackson from American Idol?

Notice how many possible interpretations there are of one simple word.  Now imagine that you string together a series of complex words and ideas (e.g., “intuitive user interface”) as a means for updating your stakeholders, discussing strategy, establishing a set of requirements, or designing a complex solution framework.  Have you been clear and unambiguous?  Have you left room for interpretation or have you nailed down the message for singular meaning?  Beware the convoluted: I know that you believe that you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.

When our communications fail, it is rarely the fault of the recipients.  Lest we end up like Humpty Dumpty of the Nursery rhyme, in un-repairable shape no matter how many resources the King could use, it is incumbent upon experienced PMs to verify that our messages are understood as they are intended.

About Carl M. Manello
I am Slalom Consulting's Practice Lead for Delivery Effectiveness. I work to support organizations' capability and delivery maturity -- not just IT organizations -- so that their initiatives run more predictably, efficiently and provide the best results.

6 Responses to Say What? Lewis Carroll’s Cautionary Tale about Communication

  1. Jenna says:

    Ah the Dog illustration. Awesome as always. Nicely done! Chapter 2 in your book?

    • carlmanello says:


      Thanks! I know that you’ve seen the “Dog” exercise done live. Very powerful, eh? Not sure if it will make it to the book, but maybe some of these blog posts will.

      Happy Holidays!


  2. Tony Troup says:

    Nice blog Carl. “communicate to educate” is critical for pretty much anything…

    • carlmanello says:

      So right you are Tony!

      While we tend to focus on the complex and technical components of project management, we sometimes overlook the more basic challenges: just being understood.



  3. Pingback: Why Projects Succeed – Stakeholder Communication Best Practices « The Slalom Blog

  4. Pingback: The Art of Project Management: Planning | The Slalom Blog

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