When people begin the study of communication, their attitudes vary anywhere from “I think this would be a very important class: it is important to understand the communication process if I want to improve the effectiveness of my communication,” to “What a waste of time. I’ve been communicating all my life. Do I really need to take a course to understand communication?”
Whether or not we take a course in communication, there is considerable value in trying to refine our understanding of communication. To demonstrate, I will present two class exercises. In describing the exercises, hopefully some of the jargon common in the communications discipline (for example, encoding, decoding, channel, and congruence) will become clearer, and you will be at least a little more sensitive to trying to verify the effectiveness of your everyday communication approaches.
Exercise 1: Oral Instructions
However, there were restrictions. There were encoding restrictions on the person giving the instructions: they could describe the image only by using basic terms relating to shapes, lengths, directions, distances, and so on, and they could not use gestures in their instructions. For instance, in the second source drawing, the sender could not say, “Draw a house sitting upon a mound…” but would have to say something like “Draw the top half of a circle. Above that semi-circle, draw a square…” and so on. In the decoding process by the receivers, the option to ask questions of the sender was removed. The channel was handicapped by imposing a five-minute time limit for the descriptions and the drawing.
As can be seen in Figure 1, the resulting drawings are quite varied, although in some cases (particularly the drawing of the cube with a six-pointed star on its face), they do come close to reproducing the source.
Exercise 2: Written Instructions
After a classroom discussion of the outcomes, one of the students strongly felt that things would be quite different if the instructions were given in written form. “By taking time to write the instructions,” he asserted, “we would be able to make sure that the instructions are clear enough that anyone reading it would be able to understand them.”
We decided to test his theory by writing instructions for drawing a cube with a six-pointed star on one face. Here are some of the instructions written by the students and the resulting drawings from various faculty and staff.
What Went Wrong?
In the discussions following both exercises, there were a lot of attempts to explain why things did not go as expected. When discussing the experience giving oral instructions, some criticisms included the restrictions, which some argued were somewhat arbitrary. Yet, we deal with such restrictions regularly. Many of us, for instance, rely on text messages (or services like Twitter) for a considerable amount of our communication, and these messages are restricted to less than 200 characters. An organization preparing a television or radio advertisement has to work within a limited time frame, somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds. When writing a classified advertisement or a newspaper advertisement, you are likely to be restricted by the number of square inches of space your advertisement occupies.
In other instances, the receiver was simply confused. In the second drawing example for written instructions, the receiver got stuck trying to figure out how to draw a six-pointed star: around her paper there were many star scribbles, but they were all the more typical five-pointed star that we would be inclined to draw if someone had asked us to draw a star. In the end, she did not have enough time to complete her drawing. While the sender would have interpreted her message as being clear and direct, the receiver clearly needed some supplementary instruction.
There were also cases where the instructions were not congruent. In the third drawing example for written instructions, the sender tells us to draw two overlapping triangles, but then tells us that the resulting shape should have five points. Similarly, in the first drawing example, the receiver felt most confused by the fifth instruction. The fourth instruction did not specify which direction the parallelogram should be oriented. After she had already drawn what she interpreted as the fourth instruction, the fifth instruction did not seem to be in congruence with what she had already drawn.
It is also interesting to note that it is difficult to say whether people were right or wrong in what they drew. Most of the receivers would strongly assert that they drew according to their interpretation of the instructions that they were given. From that perspective, what they drew was correct. Many senders, on the other hand, did acknowledge that they had not tested their message to see whether it conveyed what they intended. A few of them also admitted to “cheating” a little by being close to the receiver and reinforcing the written statements by providing supplementary oral instructions.
What Can We Learn From This?
Perhaps the most important message from these experiences is that we should not assume that our communication is effective. Rather, we should try to build methods into our communication that try to confirm that the receiver has understood our message. (In teaching parlance, this is commonly referred to as a comprehension check.) Often, these are simple questions or brief activities presented to the audience to verify that their understanding of the message is correct.
These experiences also indicate that there is no single channel that is best for effective communication. Most likely, a combination of approaches would be most effective since different receivers have different learning or comprehension styles. Imagine, for instance, how much easier it would have been if we could have simply shown the audience the drawing and asked them to reproduce it. Or how helpful it would be if we could also use gestures along with our words to mimic the act of drawing, thus also helping the receiver to create an accurate drawing.
Keeping these lessons in mind, we should also try to identify what type of communicator we are. For some, their strengths will be in written communication; others might prefer speaking, demonstrating, illustrating, or employing one of the many communication reinforcement tools available to us. Once you have figured that out, practice—both to keep your strengths strong, and to improve upon your weaknesses.