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Communications as media: Roman Jakobson

The "normal", "conventional", "commonsense" view of communications is to see it a process not far from removed from a Western Union message system, in which:

... the addresser sends a message to the addressee. To be operative, the message requires a context referred to, seizable by the addressee, and either verbal or capable of being verbalized; a code fully, or at least partially, common to the addresser and the addressee; and finally, a contact, a physical channel and psychological connection betweeen the addresser and the addressee, enabling both of them to enter and stay in communication. (Jakobson)

According to this conventional view, all communications proceed on the same basis whether it is an ordinary conversation, a speech, a letter, a poem or a narrative. There is always a message that proceeds from an addresser or sender to an addressee or receiver. The message communicated is dependent on three factors: a contact, a code and a context. There can be no communication unless the listener makes contact with the sender's message, through hearing words or seeing them printed page. Messages are communcated through a code which involves connections of meanings along with an organization pattern of the discourse as a whole. The context of the message is the general subject that the message is about and what the speaker is referring to.

This conventional view of communication is implicit in the unreflective discussion about the media which implies that communication is a pipeline transfer of units of material called "bits" or "information" from one place to another. The mind is a box. One takes a unit of "information" out of it, encodes the unit (i.e. fit it to the size and shape of the pipe that it will have to go through) and put it into one end of the pipe (the medium, something in the middle between the two other things). From the one end of the pipe the "information" proceeds to the other end, where someone decodes it (restores it to its proper size and shape) and puts it in his or her own box-lke container called a mind.

This view of communication is very widely held but it has one serious problem:

This model obviously has something to do with human communication, but on close inspection, very little, and it distorts the act of communication beyond recognition. (Ong, page 176)

What's wrong with the conventional view?

The main thing that's wrong with the conventional view of communications is that it grossly understates the role of the listener. For the most part, listeners hear what they expect and want to hear. If they hear something fundamentally different, something that challenges their basic beliefs, the confirmation bias kicks in, and they find ways to interpret the new information as unreliable or unfounded or just plain wrong. As The Secret Language of Leadership explains, that's why sending people a message in the form of reasons why they should change their point of view or behavior is not only ineffective: it's counterproductive. It actually makes the listeners more entrenched in their opposition to changing than if you had said nothing at all.

What to do? That's what The Secret Language of Leadership (Jossey-Bass: October 2007) is all about. To order your copy, click here.


Stephen Denning: The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, 2007)

Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000.

The commonsense view of communications was articulated by Roman Jakobson:in his 1960 essay, "Linguistics and Poetry" in Style and Language, ed. T.A.Sebeok (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1960), 350-377.

See also Polkinghorne, Donald.E.. Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences. Albany N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1988., page 33-34.

Walter J. Ong, Orality & Literacy: The Technologogizing of the Word, Routledge: London and New York, 1982.

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