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Considering the process of communicating

Multiple Authors

Communication is a complex two-way process, with a number of factors that can lead to miscommunication, or the ‘lost in translation’ effect. Miscommunication can result from the choice of expression made by the person sending the message(s) and from the interpretation of the message by the receiver, both being steps in the communication process where meaning is attached to the signals (whether words, actions, symbols, etc.) being transferred.

There are a few basic principles that pertain to the process of communicating:

  • know your audience (interests, opinions, knowledge of the topic, etc.)
  • know your purpose
  • know your topic
  • select a suitable environment in, or forum through, which to engage in the communication
  • anticipate objections
  • present a rounded picture (do not overstate the case)
  • achieve credibility with your audience
  • follow through on what you say
  • communicate a little at a time
  • present information in several ways
  • develop a practical, useful way of getting feedback
  • use multiple communication techniques (that will appeal to different people’s styles of acquiring information)

Communication is often not simply about conveying factual information, but often also contains components of self-revelation (an expression of the sender), the relationship between the sender and receiver, and an appeal aimed at influencing the receiver (Schumacher referencing Schulz von Thun, 2001). Communication often involves the exchange of both verbal and non-verbal signals (e.g. an action, gesture or facial expression). If these are congruent and interpreted as being in agreement then the message is reinforced (like someone who says they value feedback and then patiently listens to a comment and demonstrates interest and alertness through their body language). But if these verbal and non-verbal signals are incongruous or in seeming disagreement, then it sends a double message which can reduce the intended impact and may result in the receiver discrediting the message completely (like someone who says they value feedback and then proceeds to brush aside a comment as irrelevant).

Communication can take many different forms including: speaking-listening; writing-reading; drawing; acting; gesturing; imaging (e.g. map, photograph, diagram); etc. Some like to distinguish between communicating and informing, while many use communication to include both uni-directional forms of information provision and dynamic, interactive forms of participatory information sharing (Gumucio-Dagron, undated). Here we use the second approach and include examples of ‘informing’, but for the most part the focus is on processes of information sharing and exchange. Based on this there are multiple mediums through which communication can be conducted including: conversation; deliberative dialogue; radio; TV; internet; newspaper; video; book; exhibition; play; magazine; lecture; presentation; game; billboard poster; etc.

To select the most appropriate communication method one needs to consider the following:

  • What is the purpose of your message?
  • Who are the key people to communicate this with?
  • What facts must be presented to achieve your desired effect?
  • What are the audience’s current attitudes toward the issue?
  • What are the preferred communication styles of the audience (e.g. formal vs. informal, written vs. verbal)?
  • Are you sufficiently familiar with the subject matter that pertains to the message?
  • Are there constraints that affect the selection of the method e.g. time availability; necessary skills; logistical arrangements; * access to the medium; shared language; literacy; existing knowledge of the subject; cultural sensitivity; strong emotion; conflictual views; etc.?
  • Are there visuals that will convey the message better than words, or that will support words to strengthen the impact of the message, making it more engaging, easily interpretable, and memorable?
  • Is there a need for documentation of the message either for future references, multiple audiences (wider distribution) or to give the receiver the ability to work through the message at their own pace?

Because we are covering the spectrum from unidirectional informing to participatory processes of engagement some of the terminology associated with each of these gets a bit mixed together. For example we use the word ‘audience’ occasionally, which tends to suggest a more passive ‘other’ or recipient, typical of certain forms of communication like a newspaper or lecture. But we want to convey a broader category that also includes the person or group of people who you are engaging or conversing with in more dynamic forms of communication, like through a wiki or in a focus group discussion. Perhaps the term ‘participants’ is a useful one when it is necessary to break down the sender-receiver, communicator-audience dichotomies and convey a more equal engagement in the process of communication by any number of stakeholders. This is important because often one does not have a comprehensive understanding of the knowledge domain (both codified and tacit), mandate, interests and decision-making responsibilities of the person or group of people one is communicating with, so the ‘sender’ has as much to learn from the exchange as the ‘receiver’. This touches on issues of so-called ‘expert’ and ‘lay’ knowledge, competing interests, contested realities and power relations, which we won’t go into now but is something that is worth thinking about and would be interesting to pick up on at another opportunity.

We now move on to consider the content of the risk messages to be communicated. The critical link between these two topics of process and content is the ability of the receiver / audience to process and use different quantities and quality of information in a given circumstance (associated with a certain purpose, be it an increased awareness of the issue or a specific resource allocation decision that has to be taken).


Much of this section draws from 2 web-based sources: Principles of Communication, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Centre for Urban Transportation webpage [1] (viewed 13/05/09)

Key Principles of Effective Communication, a learning module by Marinita Schumacher, Knowledge Board webpage [2] (viewed 13/05/09)

Gumucio-Dagron, A. (undated) Communication for Social Change: The new communicator, [3] (viewed 25/06/09)

Authors: Anna Taylor (SEI Oxford); Tahia Devisscher (SEI Oxford)

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