What Is Communication?

The Art of Communication, Verbal and Nonverbal

In the movie Cool Hand Luke (1967), the Captain (played by Strother Martin) says to Luke Jackson (Paul Newman), "What we've got here is a failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach."
(Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Communication is the process of sending and receiving messages through verbal or nonverbal means, including speech, or oral communication; writing and graphical representations (such as infographics, maps, and charts); and signs, signals, and behavior. More simply, communication is said to be "the creation and exchange of meaning." 

Media critic and theorist James Carey defined communication as "a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired and transformed" in his 1992 book "Communication as Culture," positing that we define our reality via sharing our experience with others.

All creatures on earth have developed means in which to convey their emotions and thoughts to one another. However, it's the ability of humans to use words and language to transfer specific meanings that sets them apart from the animal kingdom.

Components of Communication

To break it down, in any communication there is a sender and a receiver, a message, and interpretations of meaning on both ends. The receiver gives feedback to the sender of the message, both during the message's conveyance and afterward. Feedback signals can be verbal or nonverbal, such as nodding in agreement or looking away and sighing or other myriad gestures.

There's also the context of the message, the environment it's given in, and potential for interference during its sending or receipt. 

If the receiver can see the sender, he or she can obtain not only the message's contents but also nonverbal communication that the sender is giving off, from confidence to nervousness, professionalism to flippancy. If the receiver can hear the sender, he or she can also pick up cues from the sender's tone of voice, such as emphasis and emotion. 

Rhetorical Communication—The Written Form

Another thing that sets humans apart from their animal cohabiters is our use of writing as a means of communication, which has been a part of the human experience for more than 5,000 years. In fact, the first essay—coincidentally about speaking effectively—is estimated to be from around the year 3,000 B.C., originating in Egypt, though it wasn't until much later that the general population was considered literate.

Still, James C. McCroskey notes in "An Introduction to Rhetorical Communication" that texts like these "are significant because they establish the historical fact that interest in rhetorical communication is nearly 5,000 years old." In fact, McCroskey posits that most ancient texts were written as instructions for communicating effectively, further emphasizing early civilizations' value of furthering the practice.

Through time this reliance has only grown, especially in the Internet age. Now, written or rhetorical communication is one of the favored and primary means of talking to one another—be it an instant message or a text, a Facebook post or a tweet.

As Daniel Boorstin observed in "Democracy and Its Discontents," the most important single change "in human consciousness in the last century, and especially in the American consciousness, has been the multiplying of the means and forms of what we call 'communication.'" This is especially true in modern times with the advent of texting, e-mail, and social media as forms of communicating with others around the world. With more means of communication, there are also now even more ways to be misunderstood than ever.

If a message contains just the written word (such as a text or email), the sender needs to be confident in its clarity, that it cannot be misinterpreted. Emails can often come off cold or clipped without that being the intention of the sender, for example, yet it's not considered professional to have emoticons in formal communication to help convey the proper meaning and context.  

Before You Open Your Mouth or Hit 'Send'

Before preparing your message, whether it's going to be in person one-on-one, in front of an audience, over the phone, or done in writing, consider the audience who'll be receiving your information, the context, and your means to convey it. What way will be the most effective? What will you have to do to ensure it's conveyed properly? What do you want to make sure that you don't convey?

If it's important and going to be relayed in a professional context, maybe you'll practice beforehand, prepare slides and graphics, and pick out professional attire so that your appearance or mannerisms don't distract from your message. If it's a written message you're preparing, you'll likely want to proofread, make sure the recipient's name is spelled correctly and read it aloud to find dropped words or clunky phrasing before sending it.