Communication Theory

1. What is communication?

Learning Objectives

  • How can communication be defined?
  • What are the specific theories relevant to communication in the current business context?

Although omnipresent through its nature, communication is difficult to define, as it is such a natural phenomenon for all living creatures, humans in particular. It can be described as the verbal or non-verbal interaction between two or more individuals, with the purpose of exchanging information. Communication is also used by individuals and organisations to create and share meaning. An organisation for instance cannot exist without the effective use of communication amongst its members and the majority of businesses also depends on effective communication with their clients. The communication process is a complex one, which requires an in depth understanding of a number of elements, starting with the background of the interlocutors through to the best channel that targeted individuals respond to. Digital media brings new opportunities and poses new challenges and threats for both individuals and companies communicating with their target audiences. For instance, social media platforms allow a more quick and effective communication, but there are particularities for each of these communication platforms which need to be taken into account, which may pose difficulties for individuals and organisations.

2. Who is communication important for?

Learning Objectives

  • Why is communication important in an interpersonal context?
  • How do businesses benefit from employing effective communication?

Communication is a necessity for any living creature, as verbal or non-verbal communication alerts others around about any needs or issues of a being, allowing them to indicate that they need help or it simply allows beings to socialise amongst them. Apart from individual’s need for communication, the scholarly knowledge also indicates that politicians, organisations and other humans need communication in order to persuade certain targeted groups of individuals to act or think in a certain manner. For businesses it is important to design and deliver a persuasive advertising message in the market which ultimately leads the end receiver to act upon this message and purchase a product or service sold to them. Politicians and other individuals seeking to influence the behaviour, thoughts or actions of other individuals have to deliver a persuasive message to their audience, which requires an in-depth understanding of the overall communication process. Inside an organisation, it is important to ensure that communication between all members is seamless, particularly the communication between managers and their subordinates.

3. Communication Models

Learning Objectives

  • What are the most important communication models?
  • How did communication models evolve over time?
  • How can communication models be applied in practice?

3.1. Shannon & Weaver’s model

The communication process occurs in the presence of certain elements, efficiently depicted by Shannon & Weaver (1949) in their model. A large number of modern communication models have often followed the structure set by Shannon & Weaver (1949), as it defines the most important elements to be taken into account when attempting to understand and influence the communication process:

  • 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
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The other two crucial elements of this communication process are the noise, which is any form of unwanted interference that can influence the delivery of the message and the feedback, which can help both the sender and the receiver to clarify any misunderstandings.

Figure 1 Shannon & Weaver's (1949) Communication Model

As pictured in the model above, whilst the linear process (from sender to receiver) may not be seamless from the beginning, due to noise in any potential form, feedback can help reconcile any misunderstandings created by any unwanted interferences in the form of noise. Understanding the variety and depth of the potential noise which can interfere in the communication process is crucial to designing and delivering a persuasive message. The interferences which can occur in the communication can be classified in four main categories:

  • Physical noise which refers to any environmental distraction such as other unwanted loud sounds, a threatening or uncomfortable physical surrounding during the communication process, appearance of other things which can distract the individual, etc.
  • Physiological noise refers to biological influences in the form of unwanted distractions such as hunger, feeling unwell or being tired, as well as anxiety during the speech and many other reactions of the body in the presence of anxiety or strong emotions.
  • Psychological noise which occurs in the form of certain bias in regards to the interlocutor, such as their knowledge of the coding used, their existing knowledge and cultural background which may lead to a misinterpretation of the message and ultimately to a certain frustration felt by the sender.
  • Semantic noise stemming from the use of words which may have multiple meanings and therefore leave sufficient room for misinterpretation in the decoding process.

3.2. Berlo’s model

For business organisations, for instance, it is important to understand the process of communication, in order to understand the most important elements which can be researched and utilised in designing and delivering their message. In relational communication it is also important to understand various elements which influence the delivery of the message to the interlocutor (receiver), including their culture, knowledge, etc. This is defined and detailed in Berlo’s (1960) theory, which puts great emphasis on the interaction between the source and receiver in the presence of a message and facilitated by the chosen channel. However, this fails to depict the two crucial elements which are present in Shannon - Weaver’s model, namely noise and feedback. In essence, whilst the background of both sender and receiver, the message and channel of choice are all carefully analysed and chosen, the message might still become distorted by numerous disturbances. On the other hand, if the feedback exchange between the interlocutors is efficient, the cultural or social discrepancies may be minimised.

The two models presented are therefore equally important, yet they are not capable to capture the entire essence of the communication process independently. This is in part due to the difficulty in capturing both the linear process of communication and all the sub elements of each of those steps. Depending on the intended purpose and context of the communication, one of the two models may be more appropriate, or perhaps a mixture between elements of both. In cross-cultural communication processes, for instance, Berlo’s (1960) model is extremely useful, as it depicts the crucial element of culture and how this can influence the overall outcome of the communication process. At the same time, however, cultural differences can also be seen as noise, in Shannon & Weaver’s (1949) model and the negative impact of these distinctions can be minimised through effective feedback.

Figure 2 Berlo's (1960) Communication Model

3.3. Barnlund’s Model

Barnlund (1962) expands on the two models presented and additional knowledge in the field through his proposition of a transactional model, which expands on the idea of feedback. A sender and a receiver are interlinked, as both are simultaneously engaging in sending and receiving messages, as is the case with a two-way conversation. In more complex communication contexts 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. To exemplify with a very relevant and common instance in modern times, a Facebook user will be browsing their newsfeeds, looking for relevant information, whilst also being targeted by various companies through paid advertising. It is crucial for businesses to target their adverts in their most relevant manner, in order to avoid being perceived as noise and also because they are interfering in the interpretation of other messages. Brands should aim to engage in a two-way meaningful communication process with their targeted audience, in order to become relevant to their potential customer and also to benefit from the feedback of these users. The chart below outlines the interaction between the sender, receiver and message in the instance of one-way and two-way communication, which can aid all individuals and organisations who intend to communicate in choosing the more appropriate of the two.

Figure 3 One-way communication

Figure 4 Two-way communication

The two distinct approaches to communication processes have their relevance in distinct situations. The linear one-way communication was habitually utilised at the onset of modern mass-communication through print, radio or TV, when feedback was not easily obtainable from the receiver and organisations were relying on the persuasiveness of the message. In learning environments (schools or University classes), the teacher (sender) focuses on delivering a message to the students (receiver), which can be a large group, and one-way communication is required as feedback can become disrupting in this context.

. In modern times, when digital communication has become the norm allowing brands and their consumers to interact on a regular basis, two-way communication has become the effective approach for successful organisations. Through the use of digital media platforms such as social media, brands communicate with their customers, sending a certain message to them and actively listening to their feedback, which help individual or organisational senders to adjust their strategic communication approach in an even more convincing manner in the future. For example, social media accounts on Twitter can be used by some individuals or brands as a manner of broadcasting their message, without taking into account what impact this may have on other individuals who are seeing it (Rybalko & Seltzer, 2010).  However, this approach does not maximise the potential of this free broadcasting platforms and individuals and companies alike should focus on the ability to interact with others through replies and mentions. A more proactive approach to maximising Twitter’s potential is to anonymously tune in to people’s views on a certain subject through discovering relevant hashtags (#) used by individuals to categorise the messages they broadcast on the social platform (Burton & Soboleva, 2011). Companies can in fact foresee market trends and anticipate the behaviour of their target consumers by listening to messages which are not necessarily directed at them. This approach can help organisations design the most appropriate and persuasive message and make the best choice of channel and encoding approach, in order to minimise the impact of any noise in the communication process. This goes beyond a traditional approach to two-way communication processes and it proposes a preceding step in the overall circular process, a step of active listening for the purpose of planning the content and delivery strategy of messages.

4. Uncertainty Reduction Theory

Learning Objectives

  • How can uncertainty influence the communication between individuals?
  • How can uncertainty reduction theory help businesses communicate with consumers?

Communication can also be defined as a process of information exchange that allows individuals to provide, request and exchange information in order to reduce any uncertainty in certain personal or professional instances. Berger and Calabrese (1975) indicated that reducing uncertainty in regards to other individuals or situations is one of the core motives for engaging in a communication act. 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.

Uncertainty avoidance is an important aspect in strategic communication, as it indicates to individuals and companies alike how they can plan their message and its delivery in order to minimise the uncertainty of their targeted audience. If the interlocutors are able to engage in a proactive uncertainty reduction trough the recollection of past experiences, the uncertainty reduction process is less likely to become disruptive during the communication. To exemplify, if a new brand attempts to communicate to a target audience, in order to persuade them to listen to their indeed message, they should research their audience and engage with them though their past experience with similar brands or services of the brand. Prompting the receiver to recollect a certain experience can minimise the uncertainty and help the receiver decode the message in a quicker and more effective manner.

5. Agenda-Setting Theory

Learning Objectives

  • What is the role of agenda setting theory in the communication process?
  • How has agenda setting theory evolved since the emergence of digital media?

Agenda setting theory was developed and refined by McCombs and Shaw (1993) following a study of the communication processes employed during the presidential elections, which demonstrated a strong link between the information present in mass media and the perception of the voters. Mass communication, usually carried out through papers, TV, radio and, more recently, digital media, usually attempts to influence the manner in which people perceive and interpret certain issues. The manner in which information is presented and also the importance allocated by media to a certain subject influences the general public’s perception in regards to the importance of a certain subject. The frequency and length dedicated to a certain story influences the importance that the public associates with that particular subject. In addition to this, the content and tone of a news story can also influence the manner in which individuals perceive a piece of information. The salience of certain issues is therefore set by the news outlets, who filter and shape the stories available to them. This may be perceived as a form of manipulation by individuals, but it is important to keep in mind that the vast information available to individuals at one given time is impossible to discern, hence why the perspective of news outlets is required.

With the emergence of digital media, it also became more difficult for certain news outlets to present a biased perception in regards to an issue, making news outlets more accountable to their targeted audience. Individuals have the ability to check all information available to them on the internet, to compare and contrast the views of multiple news outlets and form an independent opinion about a certain issue. Nonetheless, individuals will still rely on a certain newspaper, radio station or TV channel to find out the most important information and news. One of the key criteria in choosing a particular news outlet is the manner in which they communicate to their audience. Being able to target a specific audience can therefore be more important than the choice of specific issues that a media outlet decides to cover.

6. Culture and Communication

Learning Objectives

  • What are the difficulties encountered in inter-cultural communication?
  • How can culture be used to understand and design effective inter-cultural communication?

In modern studies communication is divided in two major classifications, relational and rhetorical. The relational approach refers to the communication process in which two or more individuals attempt to reach a common perspective acceptable to all those involved. The rhetorical communication is the in-depth study of how certain messages and the manner in which they are transmitted have an impact on how others think and act. Rhetoric communication can also be characterised as persuasion, an indispensable element in the business sphere.

In the relational communication, which occurs in everyday life and business contexts (particularly organisational communication in international contexts) the elements from Berlo’s (1960) communication model presented in the previous chapter are crucial. 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 inter-cultural contexts, the coding and decoding abilities of individuals have an influence over the formulation and understanding of the message. Language barriers, for instance, can be a great cause of noise in the communication process as defined in Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) model. Apart from this element, there are also other aspects which stem from the cultural background, such as uncertainty of a lack of experience in communicating with an individual from a different culture. The anxiety or apprehension felt by any of the interlocutors in an inter-cultural communication context can be minimised by self-taught or organised training in relation to the potential issues encountered in communicating with an individual from a distinct background. Individuals who are interacting with other nationalities can research the potential distinctions which they would need to overcome in cross-cultural communication. Hofstede’s (1984) cultural dimension theory is a ground-breaking theory which allows a classification of cultural distinctions, as shown in the table below:

Figure 5 Hofstede's (1984) Model

The noise presented in Shannon & Weaver’s (1949) model can be intensified by cultural distinctions and interlocutors from distinct cultural backgrounds need to adjust their communication style to suit the expectations of the individual they are interacting with. Organisations can use the Hofstede model above to identify the inter-cultural training needs of their employees, in order to ensure that the communication between colleagues from distinct cultures is effortless and effective.

In relational communication, these distinctions are just as relevant for planning the marketing and advertising tactics of brands, as targeting a culture with a high indulgence index must be done in a distinct manner from the promotional tactics employed in a restraint culture. 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. Companies are responsible for training their employees in regards to cultural distinctions between them and individuals from other cultures they may be interacting with. This is called cultural sensitivity and it has become an area of interest in inter-cultural business communication, as it is more likely to lead to successful cross-cultural collaborations amongst individuals or companies. 

7. Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication

Learning Objectives

  • How can verbal and non-verbal elements of communication contribute to the delivery of a message?
  • What are the issues with digital communication and the lack of non-verbal elements in the communication process?

When discussing communication, it is important to understand that messages can be conveyed through a number of components, which include non-verbal elements, an essential aspect of communication. Mehrabian (1968) launched the 3V concept which revealed the percentage of influence of Verbal, Vocal and Visual elements of communication, as pictured below. It is difficult to determine the exact percentage of contribution of verbal, para-verbal and non-verbal signals to the overall effectiveness of communication. However, it is undeniable that all three elements need to be taken into account, particularly in the case of inter-cultural communication. Words (or verbal signals) need to be backed up by the other two elements of a speech, in order to ensure that the message can be conveyed in the most persuasive manner.

Figure 6 Mehrabian's (1968) Model

It is important to mention from the onset that Mehrabian’s (1968) findings are relevant to communication about emotions, applicable in interpersonal communication in particular. The ratio between the three aspects of communication may change in the case of communication in an organisational context, if, for instance, technical information is communicated by a manager to his or her employees, a situation in which the verbal content of the communication is primordial. However, in any communication context the 3V concept is crucial and, whilst the three types of signals are all important, individuals need to evaluate the complexity of the communication context, the background and knowledge of their interlocutor in order to decide what the percentage of the three signals should be used.

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7.1. Verbal Signals

The choice of content and the manner in which this is presented through spoken or written words is crucial in sending through an effective message to the receiver. There are a number of elements which need to be taken into account in regards to the verbal aspect of communication, as the words need to create a positive message, with a clear meaning, which follows a logical structure, with minimal jargon and suited to the audience. In the case of written communication the choice of words is crucial, as the vocal and non-verbal aspects are minimal or inexistent, which means that the receiver interprets the message, based solely on the words communicated to them.

7.2. Para-verbal/Vocal Signals

The next level of signals which is conveyed during communication processes are the vocal or para-verbal signals. These can have a great influence over the manner in which the meaning of a message is delivered by a sender and subsequently interpreted by a receiver. Some of these vocal elements in spoken communication 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, influencing the overall delivery of the message. In addition to this, the speed of the speech can also impact on the communication process, particularly in meetings where the information discussed is complex or in inter-cultural communication where language barriers can be further intensified by a very high speed of the speech. All of these vocal elements help individuals to convey the attitude and emotion towards a message, which can help grab the attention of the interlocutors and also ensure that the persuasiveness of the message is enhanced. The para-verbal signals listed above are applicable in the case of verbal communication, but there are also specific factors which influence the written communication such as: punctuation, grammar, structure of the sentence, layout and spelling. Poor spelling for instance can be detrimental to the ability to convey a message, as the audience may be paying more attention to the spelling errors than to the overall meaning of the message. At the same time, punctuation can convey emotion in written messages, as exclamation signs can act in the same manner as raising the tone or placing an emphasis on a particular word during a spoken message. Layout is also of paramount importance as, for example, using bullet points can help summarise a more complex idea in a manner which is easier to grasp for the receiver.

7.3. Non-verbal signals

According to Mehrabian’s (1968) study, the non-verbal signals account for more than half of the elements which lead to effectiveness of communication. Whilst, as already mentioned, this is not fully applicable in every instance and is mainly referring to communication of feelings and attitudes, it is nonetheless undisputable that non-verbal signals hold a key role in the face to face communication between two or more interlocutors. Also known as body language, the non-verbal signals include an individual’s facial expression, posture, gestures, touch and distance. Facial expressions tend to change rapidly and often uncontrollably depending on the feelings of the individual at a certain point in the communication process. Although humans can attempt to control their facial expressions and gestures, the unconscious change in attitude towards the interlocutor may lead to unnoticeable changes which, if studies closely, may indicate feelings or emotions that the individual may not have wished to reveal.

Cultural distinctions can have a crucial impact on the non-verbal signals employed in communication and how these are interpreted in an inter-cultural context. Latin and South Mediterranean (Greek, Italian, French, etc.) cultures tend to use gestures in order to emphasise the message they want to convey to other individuals, which may appear unusual to other cultures. At the same time, these cultures tend to reduce the distance between interlocutors and use the tactile senses in order to convey closeness to their interlocutor during the communication process. This may be perceived as an invasion of the private space in Western culture, which can ultimately lead to a disruption (noise) in the overall process of conveying a message to the receiver. Through cultural sensitivity training, individuals begin to understand the importance of these non-verbal clues and adjust their attitude in order to ensure that their spoken message arrives unaltered by certain signals to the end receiver. At the same time, individuals need to be aware of some of the non-verbal signals which they may be sending out to their interlocutors during communication and, whilst much of these signals are intuitive and hard to control, self-awareness can help minimise the potential negative impact of non-verbal signals. Emotional intelligence can be developed through analysing the previous experience in dealing with individuals from the same culture and learning what verbal or non-verbal stimuli they respond to best, and subsequently putting this into practice during the communication process with them.

8. Communication in the Digital Age

Learning Objectives

  • How can the theories presented be adapted to the current context of overreliance on digital media?
  • Is there a need for specific communication theories designed to respond to the emergence and growing popularity of digital media?

The theories regarding communication are still applicable in today’s highly digitised communication context. However, these theories need to be adapted to the specific rules and regulations of digital media platforms, whether these are specified in the terms and conditions upon signing up to a specific website or unwritten but essential rules in that specific online community (Baym, 2015). Each social media website or mobile application designed to facilitate communication has a target audience, a niche user base, specific rules of engagement or a particular trade or industry focus. For example, LinkedIn has become a worldwide professional network designed specifically for sharing industry related knowledge and news, building a professional network and job advertising (Weinberg, 2009). Although individuals choose to share personal information in their LinkedIn feeds, these users are usually targeted by the wider LinkedIn community and criticised for their misunderstanding of the social network’s intended purpose. This is not a violation of terms and conditions, as such, but it is still frowned upon by the wide majority of the LinkedIn users. The social media platform encourages users to share their personal achievements and opinion, so long as it may be relevant to their professional careers, such as a promotion within the company they are working for, but some users misunderstand this and begin to use LinkedIn in the same manner as they would Facebook. Individuals may be interested in the rulebook of each social media platform in order to discover which one of them are useful to them, but organisations need to be fully aware of how to maximise the potential use of each social media platform.

Digital media has evolved at a very fast pace and in the current climate the wide majority of individuals who have access to internet and smartphones have at least one social media account. This evolving trend has offered organisations new opportunities to communicate with their target audience, but also the challenge of understanding how to target their potential and existing client base through their social media presence. Communication therefore becomes quicker and more interactive through the use of social media, but the pressure to respond to the consumers’ 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 led to overreliance on these communication mediums, often used for a mix of personal and business use, which can be extremely risky for individuals and companies alike. Any information shared on social media websites can ultimately be publicly shared, with social media platforms such as Twitter upholding their view that any information shared through their website cannot be retracted. In addition to this, formulating a message in 140 characters (the maximum allowed on Twitter) which can convey the real meaning as intended by the sender is nearly impossible, particularly in the case of a crisis. The global mobility of the workforce and the evolution of the multinational working environment has also given rise to audio and videoconferencing as an alternative to face to face meetings in the business sphere. Whilst this allows teams from distinct countries to interact in a more meaningful manner than email exchange or phone conversations, overreliance on this can also pose threats to corporate communication. Face to face meetings allow the para-verbal and non-verbal signals to contribute to the effectiveness and clearness of the message as intended by the sender. It also allows less noise to interfere in the communication process, as social media platforms allow targeted ads to disrupt the intended communication via social media by individuals or brands.

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9. Summary

To conclude, communication is indeed a very difficult concept to grasp and fully explore through theoretical approaches, but it is also obvious that an in depth understanding of its complexity is crucial to ensure that the intended message is seamlessly delivered and efficiently understood. Culture on the one hand and digital media on the other can increase the complexity of communication in both personal and professional interactions of individuals, as well as for 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. Starting from these factors and taking into account the other theories presented here, such as Hoftstede’s (1984) cultural index classification, one can begin to define more specific theories which are applicable in their specific communication context and suits their need for strategic communication planning. Nonetheless, grasping the depth of the factors presented in this paper such as sender, receiver, noise, feedback, impact of culture on communication and the other aspects discussed here are the essential stepping stones in the pursuit of understanding and ultimately manipulating communication to design and deliver clear, persuasive and effective messages to the targeted audience.


Bibliography

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

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), 58-67.

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