The Elements of Communication: A Theoretical Approach
Whether in a marketing strategy, a client-server model, or just day-to-day conversation, communicating effectively is an amalgamation of art and science. In fact, when technology advanced rapidly through the turn of the 20th century, a new theoretical field, Communication Theory, was introduced alongside Information Theory. Notable products of that field (livelier today than ever) are the Elements of Communication, for which there exists a basic model. Naturally, debate abounds over what these elements are in what order they should appear, but a general blueprint survives to help us better understand the tangibles and intangibles behind the art of communication.
Over the years, and with the help of distinguished communication theorists Claude Shannon, Wilbur Lang Schramm and Robert Craig, among others, a simple model of communication has evolved to signify the aforementioned “elements of communication.” Again, there is no universally accepted archetype, and dissidents will flock to anything claiming to be such. Still, what follows is not only an accurate assessment of the basics; it is also an informative lesson for anyone with a desire to better understand the mechanics of communication.
The source is the person (or thing) attempting to share information. The source can be a living or non-living entity. The only qualifications necessary for a source are an origin of information (in Information Theory, the source generates data that one would like to communicate) and an ability to transmit this information, through a channel, to a receiver.
At first glance, the message is simply the information you want to communicate. But it goes deeper than that. Communication theorists examine messages from a semiotic perspective (the study of signs and symbols, and how meaning is created through them; note: it is not the study of meaning, just how meaning is created). For example, a commencement speaker produces meaning through several criteria. First, there is the object (in this case, the speaker has an inherent meaning, maybe through being a local celebrity or famous alum). The second criterion would be his or her image, acting as a symbol or representation of the meaning of the object (a well-dressed, professional and successful person). The third criterion is interpretation or derived meaning. If the object and image (and, in this case, speech) are successful, then the audience will leave with an understanding of how to proceed toward a life of personal fulfillment.
Encoding is the process of assembling the message (information, ideas and thoughts) into a representative design with the objective of ensuring that the receiver can comprehend it. Communication is only established when it results in both the source and the receiver understanding the same information. People who are great communicators are great encoders; they know how to present their message in a way that their audience (receivers) can easily understand. They are also able to identify information that is superfluous, irrelevant or even accidentally offensive, and eliminate it in advance through anticipation.
An encoded message is conveyed by the source through a channel. There are numerous channel categories: verbal, non-verbal, personal, non-personal, etc. A channel could be the paper on which words are written, or the Internet acting in the client-server model that is allowing you to read these words right now.
A good communicator is one who understands which channels to use under different circumstances. Unfortunately, there is no perfect channel. All channels have strengths and weaknesses (smartphones are great, for example, but a marriage proposal is best done in person).
Now would be an appropriate time to remind yourself that you can just as easily fill the role of decoder as you can encoder. This is where listening, and reading directions carefully, makes its claim to fame—decode with care, my friends. As we discussed in Encoding, communication is only successful when it results in both the source and the receiver understanding the same information. For this to happen, there can be no errors in processing. The most common among these would be, for example, a first-grader sitting in on a lecture on differential equations, i.e. decoding is impossible if the decoder cannot even understand the message.
Ultimately, the message is delivered to the receiver. A good communicator takes the receivers preconceptions and frames of reference into consideration; how they will react, where common ground is shared, their sense of humor, their moral conduct, etc. All of these things will affect how the receivers decode messages.
A better word might be “reaction” or “responses.” The source judges its success based on the feedback it receives, so pay close attention. If Google’s servers crashed tomorrow, there would be a lot of confused sources. The same would be true if you delivered a flawless marriage proposal, only to receive a look of bewilderment and horror. And then there are famous marketing nightmares, such as Aqua Teen Hunter Force’s LED signs that were mistakenly identified as explosive devices. Feedback is the moment of reckoning. Whether things go right or wrong, it serves as one of the most important learning opportunities we have.
Context is simply the environment in which your message is delivered. For Bob Dylan, the context was the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, with a heavy focus on The Big Apple (though he would probably disagree). Context could be a boardroom meeting focusing on international expansion or the 2006 World Cup final in Germany (poor choice, Zidane). Needless to say, context can easily make or break the effectiveness of communication.
It’s a tired old cliché, but these eight elements truly are only as strong as their weakest link. The best communicators master them all. If these tips have you feeling ambitious, learn Italian and see if you can do it in another language. Ciao!
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