What Is a Message in Communication?

Two cell phones displaying messages.

AAMIR QURESHI/Contributor/Getty Images

In rhetorical and communication studies, a message is defined as information conveyed by words (in speech or writing), and/or other signs and symbols. A message (verbal or nonverbal, or both) is the content of the communication process. The originator of the message in the communication process is the sender. The sender conveys the message to a receiver. 

Verbal and Nonverbal Content

A message may include verbal content, such as written or spoken words, sign language, email, text messages, phone calls, snail-mail, and even sky-writing, John O. Burtis and Paul D. Turman note in their book "Leadership Communication as Citizenship," adding:

Intentionally or not, both verbal and nonverbal content is part of the information that is transferred in a message. If nonverbal cues do not align with the verbal message, ambiguity is introduced even as uncertainty is increased.

A message will also include nonverbal content, such as meaningful behavior beyond words. This includes body movement and gestures, eye contact, artifacts, and clothing, as well as vocal variety, touch, and timing

Encoding and Decoding Messages

Communication refers to the process of sending and receiving messages, which can also be referred to as encoding and decoding messages. "However," say Courtland L. Bovée, John V. Thill, and Barbara E. Schatzman, in "Business Communication Essentials," "communication is effective only when the message is understood and when it stimulates action or encourages the receiver to think in new ways."

Indeed, some people — such as those who are highly media literate, for example — may be able to see much more in a given message than others, says W. James Potter in "Media Literacy," adding:

They are more aware of the levels of meaning. This enhances understanding. They are more in charge of programming their own mental codes. This enhances control. They are much more likely to get what they want from the messages. This enhances appreciation.

In essence, some people may be able to gain far more insight as they decode messages than others, depending on their level of literacy in the medium in which the message is being encoded. Those people will gain a higher understanding, control, and appreciation of a given message.

The Message in Rhetoric

Rhetoric is the study and practice of effective communication. "A rhetorical act," note Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Susan Schultz Huxman, in their book, "The Rhetorical Act: Thinking, Speaking and Writing Critically," "is an intentional, created, polished attempt to overcome the challenges in a given situation with a specific audience on a given issue to achieve a particular end."​

In other words, a rhetorical act is an effort the speaker makes to persuade others of her point of view. In performing a rhetorical act, a speaker or author creates a message whose shape and form are melded in an effort to persuade an audience.

The notion of rhetoric dates back centuries, to the ancient Greeks. "Both Cicero and Quintilian accepted the Aristotelian notion that a rhetorical message [inventio] consists of the effective use of logical, ethical, and pathetic proof," says J.L. Golden, et al., in "The Rhetoric of Western Thought." Golden adds that the rhetor who has command of these three persuasive strategies is in a good position to motivate an audience, according to these Greek thinkers.

Messages in the Media

Successful politicians and others have been able to put forward messages to persuade a vast audience as to their point of view. Peter Obstler, in his essay "Working With the Media" published in "Fighting Toxics: A Manual for Protecting Your Family, Community, and Workplace," says: "A well-defined message has two key components. First, it is simple, direct, and concise. Second, it defines the issues on your own terms and in your own words."

Obstler gives the example of the well-defined message in the slogan used by Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign in 1980: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" The message was simple and obvious, but it also allowed the Reagan campaign to control the rhetoric of the 1980 presidential election debate at every turn, regardless of the nature or complexity of the situation in which it was used. Bolstered by the persuasive message, Reagan went on to win the presidency by defeating his Democratic rival, incumbent President Jimmy Carter, in a general election landslide.


Barry National Toxics Campaign. "Fighting Toxics: A Manual for Protecting your Family, Community, and Workplace." Gary Cohen (Editor), John O'Connor (Editor), Barry Commoner (Foreword), Kindle Edition, Island Press, April 16, 2013.

Bovée, Courtland L. "Business Communication Essentials." John V. Thill, Barbara E. Schatzman, Paperback, Prentice, 2003.

Burtis, John O. "Leadership Communication as Citizenship." Paul D. Turman, Paperback, SAGE Publications, Inc, November 6, 2009.

Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. "The Rhetorical Act: Thinking, Speaking, and Writing Critically." Suszn Schultz Huxman, Thomas A. Burkholder, 5th Edition, Cengage Learning, January 1, 2014.

Golden, James L. "The Rhetoric of Western Thought." Goodwin F. Berquist, William E. Coleman, J. Michael Sproule, 8th Edition, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, August 1, 2003.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Message in Communication?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/message-communication-term-1691309. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 25). What Is a Message in Communication? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/message-communication-term-1691309 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Message in Communication?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/message-communication-term-1691309 (accessed March 29, 2023).