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Communication Theory

1.0 INTRODUCTION

Communication can be described as the verbal or non-verbal interaction between two or more individuals, with the purpose of exchanging information and to create and share meaning. The communication process is a complex one, requiring an understanding of numerous elements. Digital media brings both new opportunities and challenges but the core communication challenge remains the same - to be correctly understood.

Communication (verbal or non-verbal) allows someone to indicate that they need help or just socialise. Communication is used to change the behaviours and thoughts of others and businesses use mechanisms such as advertising to encourage consumers to buy their products and services. Internally, organisational communications are a critical competitive enabler. Investigating and understanding the key models and theories of communication is therefore important for business.

2.0 COMMUNICATION MODELS

2.1 SHANNON AND WEAVER’S MODEL

Shannon & Weaver (1949) defined the most important elements of the communication process as:

  • The information source or sender is producing the message.
  • The encoder transmits the message into signals.
  • The channel used to adapt signals for transmission.
  • The decoder who interprets the code.
  • The receiver or the final destination of the message as intended by the sender.

This process can be affected by noise (unwanted interference influencing message delivery) and feedback (which can clarify messages and help avoid misunderstandings).

Understanding the variety and depth of any potential noise is crucial to designing and delivering a persuasive message. Interference can be classified as:

  • Physical noise such as unwanted loud sounds, a threatening/uncomfortable physical environment and distractions.
  • Physiological noise - biological influences such as hunger, illness, strong emotions or anxiety impacting on how a message may be sent and/or received.
  • Psychological noise - the bias, existing knowledge, cultural background and language (code) used, which may not be the same for all involved in the communication process.
  • Semantic noise i.e. using words which may have multiple meanings, leaving room for misinterpretation in the decoding process.

2.2 BERLO’S MODEL

In relational communication it is important to understand various elements which influence the delivery of the message including issues such as culture and knowledge. Berlo’s theory (1960) emphasises the interaction between the source and receiver in the presence of a message and facilitated by the chosen channel. If the feedback exchange between interlocutors is efficient, then cultural or social discrepancies may be minimised.

Berlo considers the crucial element of culture and how this can influence the overall outcome of the communication process from source (social systems), through to message (code/language), channel (seeing, hearing etc.) and receiving (attitudes). However, like Shannon & Weaver’s approach it remains a linear model.

2.3 BARNLUND’S MODEL

Barnlund (1962) expanded on these two approaches by developing a transactional model which expanded the concept of feedback. A sender and a receiver are interlinked, as both are simultaneously engaging in sending and receiving messages. A receiver may decode a number of messages at the same time and also formulate their own message, code it and choose a channel to communicate it. It is therefore essential for businesses to consider if they wish to pursue one-way communication approaches or more interactive two-way methods that use feedback to refine the effectiveness of the message whilst also identifying and countering any noise. The linear one-way process was utilised at the onset of modern mass communication methods (print, radio and television), when feedback was not easy to obtain so the focus was on the persuasiveness of the message. With modern digital communications tools, two-way communication and greater interaction is now considered more effective.

Companies can also foresee market trends and anticipate the behaviour of their target consumers by listening to messages which are not necessarily directed at them. This goes beyond a traditional approach to two-way communication processes and suggests that active listening is now essential in shaping the delivery of effective corporate messages.

3.0 UNCERTAINTY REDUCTION THEORY

Communication can be defined as a process of information exchange that allows individuals to provide, request and exchange information to reduce any uncertainty. Berger and Calabrese (1975) stated that reducing uncertainty in regards to other individuals or situations is one of the core motives for engaging in communication. The distinct cultural or social backgrounds of individuals who are interacting may trigger behavioural uncertainty, whilst the lack of experience and knowledge about a situation or individual causes cognitive uncertainty. When an individual identifies a potential situation where uncertainty may occur, they could make predictions about the potential actions, based on their previous experience of similar encounters and this is called proactive uncertainty reduction. Individuals can also analyse the situation subsequently to the encounter with an unknown situation through retroactive uncertainty reduction, using the experience of an uncertain situation to gain experience for potential similar encounters in the future.

4.0 AGENDA-SETTING THEORY

McCombs and Shaw (1993) conducted which demonstrated a strong link between the information present in mass media and the perception of voters. Mass communication usually attempts to influence the manner in which people perceive and interpret certain issues. The way information is presented and the importance allocated to it by the media influences public perceptions. This may be perceived as a form of manipulation, but it does help to filter and sort the large volumes of information available.

With the emergence of digital information sources, it is now more difficult for media outlets to present a biased view. However, people will still have certain preferences as to how they will obtain information which does mean that messages remain tailored to the needs of specific audiences.

5.0 CULTURE AND COMMUNICATION

Communication can be considered relational (two or more individuals attempting to reach a common perspective acceptable to all involved) and rhetorical (studying how messages and the mode of transmission shape how others think and act).

In international contexts, the cultural background of both interlocutors in the communication process, as well as their awareness of cultural differences impacts the flow of the communication and its final outcome. In intercultural contexts, the coding and decoding abilities of individuals have an influence over the formulation and understanding of the message. Hofstede’s (1984) considered cultural distinctions from the perspective of power distance (e.g. the acceptability of hierarchies), individualist versus collective preferences, masculinity versus femininity, uncertainty avoidance (the ability to tolerate the unknown), normative orientation (openness to change) and indulgence versus restraint (societal norms). The likeliness of communication success in a culture therefore depends on understanding the underlining factors influencing the perception of individuals in that particular cultural context.

6.0 VERBAL AND NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION

Non-verbal elements are an essential aspect of communication. Mehrabian (1968) developed a concept considering the balance between verbal (7%), vocal (38%) and visual (55%) elements of communication, noting the importance of interaction between all three particularly in the case of intercultural communication. Words (verbal signals) need to be backed up by the other two elements ensures that messages can be conveyed in a persuasive manner. The model introduces the importance of emotions and engagement (the vocal element) to interpersonal communications. The ratio between these three aspects may change depending on the context.

6.1 VERBAL SIGNALS

Words need to create a positive message with a clear meaning, following a logical structure, with minimal jargon. They must also be tailored to suit the audience. For written communication the choice of words is crucial, as the vocal and nonverbal aspects are minimal or inexistent, which means that the receiver interprets the message based solely on the words communicated to them.

6.2 PARA-VERBAL/VOCAL SIGNALS

These refer to the emotions conveyed during a speech, such as the tone, emphasis or pitch of the interlocutor’s voice, which may indicate a certain state of emotion. The speed of delivery can also impact on the communication process. In written communication, factors such as punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, layout and spelling shape the effectiveness of any message.

6.3 NON-VERBAL SIGNALS

Non-verbal signals play a key role in face to face communications. This body language includes facial expressions, posture, gestures, touch and distance. Cultural distinctions can have a crucial impact on the nonverbal signals employed in communication and how these are interpreted in an inter-cultural context. Self-awareness can help minimise the potential negative impact of non-verbal signals and emotional intelligence can be developed by analysing previous experiences and making subsequent adjustments in communications and engagement approaches.

7.0 COMMUNICATION IN THE DIGITAL AGE

The theories regarding communication are still applicable in today’s highly digitised environment, but there are also specific rules and norms for each online community (Baym, 2015). Individuals may be interested in the rulebook of social media platforms to discover which are most useful to them and organisations need to be fully aware of how to maximise the potential use of such platforms.

Digital media has evolved rapidly, offering organisations new opportunities to communicate with their target audience. However, whilst communication becomes quicker and more interactive, the pressure to respond to consumer needs can also have a negative impact on companies’ communication abilities and strategy. Planning the communication strategy with consumers is nearly impossible if the consumers demand a response from the organisation through social media. Crisis communication therefore becomes a lot more challenging for most organisations, as all stakeholders will demand an immediate response from the company following any important events.

The growing popularity of digital media platforms also means that they become over-used as communications tools. The current mix of business and personal interactions presents significant risks, especially as any information shared on social media websites can ultimately be publicly shared. Also, hosting platforms (such as Twitter) make it almost impossible to retract any information once it has been posted. In addition, formulating short messages (such as the 140 characters currently allowed on Twitter) can undermine any efforts to distribute a real and meaningful message. 

The global workforce, increased staff mobility and the evolution of the multinational working environment has also given rise to audio and videoconferencing as a practical alternative to face to face business meetings. Whilst this allows teams from distinct countries to interact in a more meaningful manner (providing the visual stimulus needed for para-verbal and non-verbal signals), the distance involved and technology employed introduce significant disruption (i.e. noise).  Face-to-face meetings allow the para-verbal and non-verbal signals to be received more effectively, improving the clarity of the message.

8.0 SUMMARY

Communication is a very difficult concept to grasp and fully explore through theoretical approaches, but an in depth understanding of its complexity is crucial to ensuring that the intended message is seamlessly delivered and efficiently understood. Cultural factors and digital media can increase the complexity of communication in both personal and professional interactions, as well as for those brands attempting to communicate with their client base through planned marketing communication or advertising. The classical theories of Shannon & Weaver (1949) or Berlo (1960) are fundamental to understanding the overall communication process as they clearly define the most important factors which influence and are influenced when engaging in communication.

Considering these factors and taking into account the other theories presented in this Chapter (such as Hoftstede’s (1984) cultural index classification), it is possible to develop more tailored approaches that meet the requirements of a specific communication context and guide strategic communication planning. Developing a more detailed understanding of the concepts presented (such as sender, receiver, noise, feedback and the impact of culture on communication) is essential if an individual or business is to be able to adapt their communications style and approaches in order to deliver clear, persuasive and effective messages that reflect the demands and expectations of each specific audience.


9.0 REFERENCES

Barnlund, D. C. (1962). Toward a meaning-centered philosophy of communication, Journal of Communication, 12(4), pp. 197-211.

Baym, N. K. (2015). Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Berger, C. R., Calabrese, R. J. (1975). Some explorations in initial interaction and beyond: Toward a developmental theory of interpersonal communication, Human Communication Research, 1(2), pp. 99-112.

Berlo, D. K. (1960). The Process of Communication: An introduction to theory and practice, San Francisco: Reinhart and Winston.

Hofstede, G. (1984). Cultural dimensions in management and planning, Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 1(2), pp. 81-99.

Mehrabian, A. (1968). Some referents and measures of nonverbal behavior, Behavior Research Methods & Instrumentation, 1(6), pp. 203-207.

Shannon, C. E., Weaver, W. (1949). The Mathematical Theory of Communication, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.


10.0 BIBLIOGRAPHY

Burton, S., Soboleva, A. (2011). Interactive or reactive? Marketing with Twitter, Journal of Consumer Marketing, 28(7), pp. 491-499.

McCombs, M. E., Shaw, D. L. (1993). The evolution of agenda‐setting research: twenty‐five years in the marketplace of ideas, Journal of Communication, 43(2), pp. 58-67.

Rybalko, S., Seltzer, T. (2010). Dialogic communication in 140 characters or less: How Fortune 500 companies engage stakeholders using Twitter, Public Relations Review, 36(4), pp. 336-341.

Weinberg, T. (2009). The New Community Rules: Marketing on the Social Web. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly.


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