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Public speaking




Communication Theory



Lecture 1: Communication Theory

If you would like to download and listen to this lecture in MP3 format click here. (The lecture is 11:28 in length and is a 10.5 MB file)

What is Communication? Communication starts with an idea. To express that idea, it must first be put into some sort of symbol. Generally, this symbol would be a word in a particular language, but it could just as well be any symbol. A peace sign sprayed on a wall and the Mona Lisa both communicate to us just as much as words spelled out in letters. This process, of taking an idea and putting it in symbolic form, is called encoding. The philosopher Suzanne Langer said that humans are “symbol using, symbol misusing animals.” We, as human beings with our thousands of languages and dialects, are very good at this. We could invent symbols to mean things all day long. Animals, it could be argued, communicate, but don’t share our ability to manufacture and use symbols. My cat may bring a dead mouse to the foot of my bed to express his pride, but he can’t do it symbolically. A dog barks when he’s hungry, but if you don’t respond, he won’t say, “you must not be getting my message, what do you want me to do, text you?” On a side note, there has been interesting research involving monkeys using letters to express themselves, but they still have some catching up to do when it comes to human’s ability to manipulate symbols for good and bad.

Once we have encoded an idea it becomes a message which can be sent across space to another person. The raw nature of an idea now has a physical representation that could be expressed. The vague rumblings in your stomach coupled with a craving for sweets become “I want ice cream.” Next, to deliver the message, we need something called a channel. A channel is a pathway that the message can flow along to get to its destination. Think of the channel between people as being like a channel for a television or radio. If you don’t tune the dial to channel 9, you'll never see News Hour. It’s the same with human communication. Between human beings, the channel is effectively the air waves. Our words ricochet around the room through the air until they vibrate on our listener’s ear drums.

The problem with channels is that they often become cluttered with what we call noise. Noise comes in two forms, physical and psychological. It's difficult to communicate with a jackhammer going off in the next room. Physical noise is fairly easy to manage in day-to-day interactions. We can go into another room, turn off the radio, do whatever we need to do to have a quiet space. The other type of noise, psychological noise, is more difficult. Psychological noise consists of all the thoughts, daydreams, and fantasies that a listener holds in his or her head that distract a person from listening. Imagine it this way, we all have two TV sets in our heads. One TV represents our future dreams and the other represents all our previous thoughts, ideas, and experiences. Whenever we talk to each other, we receive constant interference from these two TV sets. We pop our heads out to listen to someone now and then, but most of the time we're watching one of these two TV sets, completely distracted by psychological noise. This is one of the problems with public speaking. The speaker thinks she is just speaking to a group of thirty people, but she’s really dealing with a room full of people and sixty television sets all on at the same time. Like giving a speech in the middle of the Good Guy’s showroom.

Luckily, psychological noise doesn’t always drown out a message. People learn to express themselves in such a way as to keep the attention of their listeners, despite the psychological noise in the background. When listeners realize something is important, they can focus on the speaker and turn off their mental TVs. All right, let's say that the message gets through the noise and through the channel to the other side. The message still needs decoding. If the two communicators share the same symbol system, that is to say can speak the same language, the message can now be interpreted and understood. Once all of these steps have been completed, we can say that a simple act of communication had occurred.

But what about when communication goes astray? What about when people misunderstand each other? For example, let’s look at what Irving Lee described as “The Fish Problem.” Let's say we have two people, Fred and Wilma. Fred wants to go to a seafood restaurant with Wilma. In his mind he's picturing a grilled salmon dinner with lemon butter sauce, mashed potatoes, peas, and a glass of Chardonnay. He says to Wilma, "I love fish." Wilma says she loves fish, too. But, in her mind she is thinking about her pet goldfish, Hermie. Fred does not know this, but Wilma is a strict vegetarian. So here we have Fred and Wilma smiling at each other saying how much they both love fish, but they are going in two different directions. What is wrong here? Where did the communication breakdown?

The problem is that communication is not so simple. Imagine you have a fender bender with a large limousine. You pull over, and Tony soprano steps out. He looks at the fender, he looks at you. He says, “I'm going to take care you.” He steps back in the limo, and drives away. Trembling, you step back into your car and drive home to your grandmother. You walk into her house, and can smell the warm cookies baking in the oven. You tell her what happened, she pats you on the back, and says, “don't worry, I'm going to take care you.” Now, who would you rather have say to you “I'm going to take care of you?” Tony Soprano or your grandmother?

Same exact words, 180 degree opposite meaning. The problem here is that communication always involves a content (what you say) and a relationship (who are the people to each other) dimension. You may hear the same words from Tony and grandma, but the relationship is different, hence the meaning is different.

Communication is much more complicated than a simple encoding and decoding of words. Meaning itself, exists in people not in the words themselves. In the contemporary view of communication, also called the transactional view, encoding and decoding occur simultaneously. As I speak to you, I receive the nonverbal signals that you are letting off. Your expressions reveal that you are following me, you are interested in (or bored by) what I am saying. When two people talk, it looks like they are taking turns, but when we really examine what is happening, we see that both parties are sending and receiving at the same time on different levels.

Communication is much more than verbal. Each of us, like a radio tower, is continually sending and receiving nonverbal messages. We can't help but communicate. Our body language and facial gestures tell the world what we are thinking even if we don’t wish it. Have you ever been given a gift that you really didn’t want? Or been served food that you didn’t feel like eating? Even when we try to mask our feelings, stray signals are always leaking out to those who are perceptive enough to observe them. We send out a constant stream of signals to those around us whether we are actually talking or not. People who don’t realize this simple fact often make frustrating blunders. I had a professor that would just keep rambling even though 90 percent of the class was falling asleep. He was ignoring the nonverbal messages the class was broadcasting to him. Good comedians watch their audiences when they tell jokes by paying attention to what they call the “laugh meter.” When the audience stops laughing, it’s time to move onto something else.

Communication is further complicated by its irreversibility. You can never completely take something back once you say it. There is no way to “undo” what you just said. You can say you didn’t mean it, but the person may never forget what you said. You can write someone a letter and then crumple it up and never send it, but you can’t do that in verbal face to face communication. It’s a little like spilling red wine on a white tablecloth. You can blot it out, but a tiny trace will always remain.

In summary, we can see that communication appears to be a straightforward, back and forth action of encoding and decoding messages sent across a channel, but that in reality, communication is an extremely complex process involving the simultaneous sending/receiving of irreversible messages that vary in meaning depending on who is speaking with whom.

1. Realize that communication is complex. Messages flow simultaneously in both directions. Try to do this: Pay attention to the reactions people are displaying as you speak to them, and adjust what you say accordingly.

2. Meaning depends not just on what is said, but on the relationship between the two communicators. Culture and background are as important as the actual words exchanged. Try this: Imagine how the person you are speaking with perceives your relationship. Do they see you as an authority figure or as an equal? As a friend, or as an acquaintance? Does this perceived relationship have an influence on your conversation?

3. Communication cannot be reversed. Try this: think before you act or speak. Realize that a simple apology may not cancel out a mistake you’ve made.

Lecture 2: The Exchange Fallacy

If you would like to download and listen to this lecture in MP3 format click here. (The lecture is 12:51 in length and is a 11.7 MB file)

Edward T. Hall wrote: "Language is not (as is commonly thought) a system for transferring thoughts as meaning from one brain to another, but a system for organizing information and for releasing thoughts and responses in other organisms. The materials for whatever insights there are in this world exist in incipient form, frequently unformulated but nevertheless already there in man. One may help to release them in a variety of ways, but it is impossible to plant them in the minds of others." This is as radical a notion about what communication means as has ever been proposed before. Hall has offered a fascinating definition of language which couldn't be more applicable to our times.

To incorporate this new way of looking at communication, we need to re-examine how we define communication itself. To do this, we need a fresh look at the process of interaction. First, we need to clear up one of the biggest misconceptions about communication; namely the exchange fallacy. The exchange fallacy is the mistaken notion that ideas are "things" shuttled across space from sender to receiver. Meaning is not a "thing" which can be exchanged. Ideas are not Chevrolets or candycanes to be sold, bartered, or given away. We cannot "exchange" ideas. Why? Because the "giver" of an idea still possesses it after having "given" it away. How can that be possible? While it is true that ideas do seem to replicate (information obviously multiplies--just watch a rumor spread), the word "exchange" is inaccurate and misleading.

There is a quantitative nature to ideas. When you "get the word out" about an upcoming party, for example, the information about the party could be said to diffuse throughout the community. The information multiplies from person to person in a geometric progression. In effect, a positive feedback loop is created which causes a multiplicative effect. Ideas spread almost like a virus: they multiply themselves through a reproductive splitting. The host retains the original while "photocopies" spread out into the environment.

The odd thing about the flow of information is that it stays with each person as it spreads. This phenomenon is at the heart of the mystery of communication; what else can you give and keep at the same time? When you talk, you don't lose ideas. Can you imagine if speaking about your vacation would cause you to lose all memory of it? This would be great for therapy--just talking about your problems would cause them to go away. However, everyone would be afraid to ever say anything good.

The problem is that we think of ideas as objects and try to apply the laws of physics to them. We tend to think of communication in terms of the "post office" analogy: Ideas get "sent" across space from a sender to a receiver. We even think of words as envelopes which contain the meanings inside. Sounds logical, but it's completely absurd. Meanings are in people, not words as the general semanticists remind us. The post office analogy looks good on the surface, but it is totally misleading. If it were true we would lose weight by speaking and gain weight by listening! What would that do to the diet industry? I can see the latest bestseller: Talk Your Way to a Trimmer Tummy.

A better way to think of ideas as states of awareness rather than as possessions. You are either "aware" or "not aware." There can be a cobra in my living room, but I won't know it is there unless I look at it (or step on it). We may perceive ideas exactly the same way we perceive clouds, kids, and sidewalks. Let's look at what happens when there is an accident. Two cars collide at a busy intersection. The two drivers and their passengers experienced the accident directly. The information about the accident spreads in concentric circles away from the scene. The cars directly surrounding the two are also somewhat involved, but from a distance. "Wow! Look at what almost happened to us!" The information perceptually spreads out. The cars behind are forced to stop. Traffic slows down in the opposite direction because of rubber neckers. The whole area may become gridlocked. Someone calls the police. If the accident is big enough, the media finds out and sends a camera crew. Trucks and cars with cellular phones call their offices to inform them of the delay. Now, look at what's happening here. We are describing information about the accident as if the information itself had physical form; almost as if the information was like an oil spill that started at the point of the injuries and just leaked out in all directions. Although treating information as if it had a physical substance makes it clearer in our minds, it isn't true. What is happening is that more and more people simply become aware of the accident.

Processing Information

We understand complex subjects better when we make comparisons to the familiar; for example, we could compare communication to eating. Do we process information the same way we eat? We take in food, we chew it up, it absorbs into our systems. We keep what we need and dispose of the rest. Sometimes we eat junk food (like soap operas); other times we eat at luxurious restaurants sipping on a good merlot with a salmon steak, mashed potatoes, and asparagus. All of which might be likened to reading a classic novel. Not only does the quality of our food intake vary in the same manner as the quality of the information we take in, the food metaphor makes sense in other respects. We can be "hungry" for information. We can "overeat" (what I call "infoindigestion" -- also known as information overload). We can also suffer from "malnutrition," when we only read romance novels, only watch sitcoms, and limit our conversations to insipid interchanges about the weather. "Good" schools have longer and better menus. Study aids (flash cards, Cliff notes, et al.) are like vitamins. Going to see a tutor is like being put on a special diet. Writing an essay or preparing a speech is like baking a cake. Following instructions is like following a recipe. Communicating, like eating, is social; but you can also do it by yourself. If a teacher were to be compared to a cook, the act of teaching would mean all the food would disapear by the end of the school day except, of course, for the student who "didn't get it." His "plate" is still full. The confused student will probably be blamed because he wouldn't eat his meal (probably snacked on junk food before dinner). Maybe the teacher was a bad cook. If we look at learning this way, students who don't learn are just not cleaning their plates. Most would agree the food metaphor works as a way to describe learning. The comparisons seem endless.

But wait. You just fell into a giant salad bowl. You've bitten off way more than you can chew. Communication is not really like eating. First of all a smart person isn't fatter than an ignorant one. Knowledge is not a "thing" at all. It can't be weighed, cooked, nor even measured in an objective sense. Teachers are not cooks. Two students attend a lecture. One leaves with complete understanding, the other goes home confused without any "retention." What is the difference? Is the confused student "empty" while the other is "full"? Did the learner "acquire" new knowledge, or simply confirm something she already knew? If the teacher "gave" away the knowledge, why does the teacher still know it? The problem here is called "reification." When we treat a symbol or abstraction as if it were an object, we fall into this trap.

The point is that messages are not "things" that can be added and subtracted like coins. Speakers do not lose anything (except maybe their reputations) by speaking. It's not logically possible to have something and give it away at the same time. Teachers don't lose the information they impart to their students.One could make an argument for the reverse: the act of speaking increases the speaker's knowledge. After all, the best way to learn is to teach. The line between cause and effect is blurry in communication. In fact, there may not be a line at all. Deborah Tannen once said, "Communication is a continous stream in which everything is simultaneously a reaction and an instigation, an instigation and a reaction."

The problem in defining communication is trying to find an acceptable analogy. The world of printing offers something of an improvement from the post office analogy. If you take a piece of paper and place it over a rough surface and then rub the pencil across the paper, you will have "transfered" the image onto the paper. However this type of image is quite different from the image you would have acquired had you used a printing press. With a traditional printing press, ink is placed on the press and rubs off onto the paper. In a rubbing, ink does not pass from the press to the paper. It is a marvelous metaphor for communication because that is what happens when we talk. When you listen to someone speak, you make an impression of what they are saying. You create your own version of what you hear. The sound waves from the speaker's voice bounce off your ear drums; they don't actually permeate your system. Even now as you are reading, your eyes are "rubbing" against the page. The words stay put as you form your own notions of the concepts.

Start thinking of communication as a process of evoking. Even the word "educate" comes from the Latin educere: which means to draw out. A communicator is a facilitator. Communicators assist each other in the drawing out of information. Anatole France said, "The whole art of informing is only the art of awakening the natural curiousity of the mind."

Begin the section with the animation. After you have finshed following the animation, do the exercise.