Fundamentals of Communication: Eight Basic Concepts and Definitions

What’s your communication style? Some people are forward, others subtle, some relish confrontation, while others work toward consensus. These approaches are not mutually exclusive — a skilled communicator adjusts their tact based on the circumstances and personalities involved. However we talk our talk, there are subtle dynamics at play. Spring Arbor University’s online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Leadership program is where communications experts explore those dynamics and refine their skills.

In today’s article, we’ll explore eight of the most basic concepts in communication theory. These are the stepping stones upon which communications master’s degree students build their insights.

1. Senders & Receivers
There’s no communication without someone to send a message and someone to receive it. Whether it’s a lecturer orating to their students or an individual making eye contact with someone across a crowded bar, communication is about making a connection. The role of sender and receiver may be fixed, as in a superior officer delivering orders to a private, or fluid, as in an animated conversation between equals.

2. The Message
What is being said, signed, gestured or read? Whether verbal or non-verbal, this is what the sender is attempting to communicate to the receiver. In the previous example of an officer giving orders to a private, the order is the message.

3. The Code
While the term “code” may put you in mind of sailors in a World War II submarine trying to crack enemy communiques, in communications theory a code is simply the system used to formulate the message. Oral language is a code, and so is the written word. For a code to be effective, it must be mutually intelligible to speaker and receiver.

4. The Channel
A message is formatted in code, but what do we call the means of passing or transmitting that code? Channels. In a sense, the most basic channel is the human voice — the vibration of one’s vocal cords allows the message, encoded in language, to be captured by the receiver. Most of the time when we refer to channels, we’re looking at tools that expand the capacity of our bodies to communicate. Examples of channels include fibre-optic cables, radio signals, print materials or even simple semaphore flags.

5. The Medium
If the channel is the means of transmission, the medium is the means of communication. The difference between them is easier to understand by looking at examples. A television show is a medium, while television itself is a channel. A poem is a medium, whereas the book which holds it is a channel.

Each medium exerts a powerful influence on the message which it communicates; we would likely be struck by lightning if we didn’t allude to theorist Marshall McLuhan’s revolutionary maxim “The medium is the message.” What McLuhan meant, in its simplest formulation, is that each medium has powerful tropes, strengths and limitations which profoundly shape the way a message is created and received.

6. The Noise
“Noise” in communication is both literal and figurative. Sometimes noise is physical interference in a signal, as when a storm disrupts a satellite uplink. Sometimes noise is mental: For example, a prejudice or bias against the sender may impair the receiver’s ability to accept their message. Finally, there is semantic noise. This can be thought of as an issue in the code. If a lecturer bombards their first-year students with jargon, their message will be lost because the receivers lack the specialized knowledge to comprehend it.

Noise is at the heart of many of the problems our online Communications Master’s degree students seek to resolve. Check out our post on conflict resolution for more on this point!

7. The Environment
This is the context in which communication takes place. It influences how messages are sent and received. Think of how cultural context affects what can and can’t be spoken publicly. Imagine trying to have an intimate conversation with a total stranger while a train rolls by. Context matters!

8. Feedback
It is important to avoid becoming so involved in the act of explaining something that feedback from the receiver is overlooked. Feedback helps us to calibrate how our message is being taken, and to make adjustments based on whether this feedback is positive or negative. Most humans have a certain innate capacity for this, but this capacity must be developed via socialization (or in the case of students, through study) to reach full fruition.

Taken together, these eight concepts help us to understand how communication works and what may have gone wrong when it doesn’t. If you’re curious about learning more about this field, we invite you to reach out for information on our online Communications Master’s program.

For more information please see these previous posts on preparing students to work professionally in the field:

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