Basic Communication Theory

Illustration of basic communication sender/receiver theory.

This new understanding of the history and basic idea of communication provides a great jumping-off point from which to examine the actual process of communication more clearly. However, this may prove challenging since it seems like the number of communication theories that exist equals the number of scholars studying the process, and unfortunately every communication expert likely has her or his individual opinion on exactly how the process works.

Communication, diluted to its most basic form, includes four major components: a message that gets transmitted from a sender to a receiver, via some form of medium.

The complex process of communication starts with the message. The sender must first form the message, which involves the translation of the brain’s electrical signals into some form of language, which could come in the form of verbal, nonverbal, or a combination of both communication types. This translation process often involves trying to transform emotional impulses into language, which can be an extraordinarily difficult process to achieve successfully. Emotions reside in the limbic brain, the oldest portion of the central nervous system. This portion of the brain has zero capacity for language, which explains why it can seem so difficult for individuals to verbalize their emotions at times. This could explain why humans have been trying to define concepts such as “love” for millennia, and still, nobody has gotten it 100% right. Language processing takes place in the neocortex, which is the more evolved, developed portion of the brain that generates rational thought and separates the human species from the rest of the animal kingdom. Transferring an emotional impulse from the non-language limbic brain over to the language-processing neocortex, and then effectively and accurately translating that impulse into a coherent message, presents a gargantuan challenge in many cases.

Once the sender has formulated the message, it has to travel to the receiver, and in that journey, a plethora of all-new challenges arise in the form of interference, which comes in two forms: internal and external.

  • Internal interference (also called semantic interference) arises from within in the form of mental distractions. For example, if a man gets into an argument with his spouse before leaving to go to work, he might start thinking of great comebacks to say to her later on, or he might also distract himself thinking of an appropriate apology. In addition, the sender might even generate this type of interference within listeners by using offensive, inappropriate, or confusing language that detracts from the message.
  • External interference comes from an outside source and arrives via any of the five senses. Visual distractions include a shirt with distracting text or a person who exhibits an unusual physical stance while speaking. Auditory distractions may come in the form of the hum of an air conditioner, the horns honking outside the room, or any other distracting sound. The feeling of an itchy tag on a brand-new shirt or foot pain caused by breaking in new shoes represent examples of tactile distractions. People can even get distracted by taste, such as when they drink orange juice too soon after brushing their teeth. Finally, smell can equally distract if someone in the room decides to bring lunch to class and not offer to share with everyone else.

The channel (or medium) through which these messages travel presents a wide variety of challenges as well. In the case of this textbook, the channel consists of writing. In a live speech, the channel is the human voice, and while watching a pre-recorded speech on YouTube, the channel is the internet. Each channel brings a unique set of challenges. For example:

  • Voice: Speakers must project their voices loud enough to be heard evenly throughout the room. Speakers must speak a common language for the audience to understand and speak slowly enough for the audience to keep up. Presenters must speak with a variety of inflection suitable enough to maintain the audience’s attention.
  • Internet: Connection speed must be suitable enough to avoid lag or lengthy downloads. Data must be compatible with all operating systems and browsers. People tend to be more comfortable expressing themselves online, often resulting in more candid discussions that may often become heated.
  • Writing: Message must be composed in a language the reader can understand. Font face, type, and size must be legible and not strain the eyes. Colors must have enough contrast to be easily legible. Language used must match the level of the reader.

Next, the message arrives at the receiver, who must then decode in much the same way the sender encoded the original message. As before, the receiver must possess the capability to understand the language that the sender used to encode the message (both verbally and nonverbally), but additionally, the receiver will run the message through various “filters.” These filters might include preconceived notions, such as when a speaker wearing a UW Huskies shirt addresses a group of students at Washington State University. That speaker could deliver a message that all the students support, but the visual distraction sparked by the shirt of their rival institution could trigger preconceived notions against the speaker, which may prove too difficult to overcome.

Note to Self

Can you think of a time when a “filter” impacted how you interpreted a message? What was the “filter” and what impact did it have?

Cultural norms also provide filters in communication. In many countries in the Middle East, a speaker who fails to stand close enough to smell another person’s breath may become viewed as untrustworthy, while in the U.S. such a breach of personal space would create a high level of anxiety. That anxiety creates an internal distraction that acts as an almost impenetrable filter.

Lastly, a filter most people use daily comes by way of a differential between verbal and nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication is powerful and difficult, if not impossible, to ignore. People begin learning nonverbal communication before they are even born, via the pounding rhythm of their mothers’ heartbeats, the warm touch of the womb, and external sounds transmitted through the amniotic fluid. Conservative estimates predict that people send and receive over 80% of their messages nonverbally, which means that, if their verbal messages contradict their nonverbal behaviors, their audience will accept the nonverbal message as the more accurate one. If the husband from the aforementioned internal interference example arrives at home later in the day and asks his wife, “Hi honey, how was your day?” and she replies in an angry tone with her arms crossed, “Fine,” does that mean things are fine? No, not a chance, because when the speaker’s nonverbal communication contradicts the verbal communication, the nonverbal communication almost always indicates the speaker’s true intent.

Once the message has penetrated through these filters, the receiver (hopefully) comprehends the message, and if communication proves successful, the receiver understands it as the sender originally intended. At that point, the receiver may opt to give the sender feedback. Feedback may come In the form of nonverbal communication, such as head nods, smiles, facial expressions conveying interest, or even “paralanguage” (sounds individuals make that have meaning but are not necessarily words) like “Hmm” or “Uh-huh.” The receiver may also use verbal communication, such as asking follow-up questions or providing clarifying information to add on to the speaker’s message.


Find a partner and sit down facing each other. For two minutes one of you will speak. The speaker may talk about absolutely anything, but for this experiment to work, he or she must speak continuously. The other person must sit silently and give the speaker no verbal or nonverbal feedback whatsoever. The listener must look the speaker in the eyes, but may not smile, nod, speak, or provide any other type of nonverbal feedback.

After two minutes have passed, switch roles. Do not speak during the switch, simply exchange roles. Again, interact this way for two minutes, with the speaker speaking continuously and the receiver providing no feedback (with the exception of steady eye contact). After completing this experiment, consider the following questions:

  • What did you feel during the experience when speaking?
  • Where were you thinking?
  • Was this difficult or easy? Why?
  • Which was more difficult: serving as the listener or speaker? Why?
  • What role does nonverbal feedback play in communication?

The last aspect of the communication model to examine is context, or the situation in which communication takes place. A conversation held via Skype between longtime friends, for example, follows a completely different set of “rules” than a presentation before a board meeting designed to sell a product. Or, the same speech delivered in front of a live audience might read very differently when produced as a transcript for reading. To see this effect firsthand, research the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., and instead of watching or listening to it, read it. While still remarkably beautiful, passionate, and well versed, the written version of one of the most well-known speeches in history does not seem to have the same impact as hearing Dr. King speak the words in his commanding voice. Communication theorist and researcher Marshall McLuhan referred to phenomenon by claiming, “The medium is the message,” meaning that contextual cues will heavily influence how a message is perceived by its audience. Context always plays a role in communication, from the composition stage all the way to delivery of a message.

The basics of the communication cycle may indicate this cycle operates in a perfectly linear process, moving from message sent to message received, but unfortunately communication rarely (if ever) happens like this. Communication remains complex because human dynamics are remarkably unpredictable, hence the wide variety of theories used to explain the process.


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Messages that Matter: Public Speaking in the Information Age - Third Edition Copyright © 2023 by North Idaho College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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