History of Communication Models
(Updated August 2023)
There are many definitions of Communication. Here are just a few:
- The action or process of transmitting something or the state of being transmitted.
- The action of imparting, conveying, reporting, presenting, and relaying.
- A means of sending or receiving information, such as phone lines or computers.
- The act of transferring information from one place, person, or group to another.
- The act of giving and/or receiving information.
- Transferring information to produce greater understanding.
However, we define it; “Communicating Effectively” is one of the most important life skills to learn!
History of Communication Models
In order to understand something, it is sometimes helpful to make a model of it.
And, just as the model of the solar system evolved from an earth-centered solar system to a sun-centered solar system when we learned new things, so have models of communication evolved as we have learned new things.
Throughout history, we’ve found “models” of a thing essential for focusing attention on relevant variables and causal relationships, which will, in turn, help us make better predictions about the future.
By studying different communication models and their predictive causal relationships, we can use that learning to develop communication “Best Practices.”
By studying the different communication models, we can learn the different parts of the communication process and how they are related so we can create more effective communication.
By studying the history of communication models, we can learn how our understanding of communication has evolved so we can better predict how it will evolve in the future.
The Three Ages of the History of Communication Models
The history of communication models can be divided into three “Ages:”
- Age 1 – Linear Communication Models
- It starts with Aristotle and goes through Shannon-Weaver. One-Way – Source to Receiver.
- Shannon added “Noise” to the Model.
- Age 2 – Interactive Communication Models
- Added “Synchronous” back-and-forth communication.
- Added “Feedback to the Model
- Allowed for more than 1 iteration.
- Age 3 – Iterative Communication Models
- Adds “Fractal Thinking” to the Model.
- Adds Shared Intentionality
Linear Communication Models
Aristotle – 300 BCE
The first communication model (that I can find) is by Aristotle.
There are a couple of different ways to look at Aristotle’s Communication Model.
Aristotle proposed his communication model around 300 BCE.
His model is more focused on public speaking than interpersonal communication. This makes perfect sense, given the time he was writing. To Aristotle, the receiver was just a “passive” vessel to be filled by the eloquence and persuasiveness of the speaker.
Democracy was a new thing and being able to persuade others to your point of view was crucial for success in those early Greek City States.
Aristotle’s Model of Communication is formed with five basic elements:
- Speaker – The initial source of the message.
- Speech – The Message.
- Occasion – The context surrounding the message.
- Audience – The receiver of the message.
- Effect – The goal of the message.
Aristotle advises speakers to build different speeches for different audiences at different times (occasions) and for different effects.
In essence, every speech would be unique since every audience and every time is different.
Alexander gave a speech to his soldiers before the battle at the City of Issus to defeat the Persian Empire.
Speaker – Alexander
Speech – about his invasion
Occasion – Battle for Issus
Audience – Soldiers
Effect – To defeat Persia
He also defined three core elements that improve communication.
- Ethos – The credibility of the speaker and the authority they have in their space.
- Pathos – The emotion of the speaker and the emotional connection to the audience.
- Logos – The logic of the message.
Lasswell – 1948
Harold Lasswell added to Aristotle’s model by using the word “Channel” instead of “occasion.” They are the same thing, but by calling it a channel, we can begin to narrow the description.
- Who – Speaker
- Says What – Speech
- In Which Channel – Occasion
- To Whom – Audience
- With what effect?
Notice that “with what effect” did not change from the Aristotle model. And, “spoiler alert” it will not change in any future model.
The foundation of all communication is knowing and working toward a “goal.” How closely the actual effect reaches the desired effect measures communication effectiveness.
Another addition Laswell made is to point out that every aspect of the communication process can impact the resulting “effect.”
Similar to Aristotle, Lasswell pointed out that since the speaker is the constructor of the message, the speaker should always consider their audience in constructing that message.
This makes the sender primarily responsible for the effectiveness of the communication.
In business, we had a saying, “If it is to be, it is up to me.”
Speakers should not “blame” the audience if the speaker’s message does not have the effect the speaker wanted. In the case of misunderstanding, the speaker has most of the responsibility.
Shannon & Weaver – 1948
Systematic empirical research on communication began in the 20th Century, inspired by the technical improvements to wireless and wired networks during the World Wars.
One man stood out in the development of the next Model of Communication – Claude Shannon.
Claude Shannon took Aristotle’s model and added an important element – Noise.
(Noise means obstacles in the communication process. Noise refers to any interference in the channel or distortion of the message.)
Here are a couple of things to notice in Shannon’s Model of Communication:
- Notice that Shannon only includes “Noise” in the “Channel.”
- This makes sense because Shannon worked for AT&T. He was mostly concerned with Noise in the AT&T Network.
- However, it didn’t take long to realize that Noise exists in every element of the Communication Model.
- Shannon added Concepts like Entropy and Redundancy.
- By Including Entropy, Shannon offered a way to measure information as the “Reduction of Uncertainty.”
- By Including Redundancy, Shannon offered a way to reduce noise by increasing redundancy.
- Shannon added Encoding and Decoding.
- By having to convert analog communication to digital communication, the importance of “shared codes” was highlighted.
- Shannon highlights the importance of a recipient being able to make sense of the message through decoding.
Berlo’s model of communication – 1960
Berlo breaks communication down into four steps, with core components included in each of them:
- S: Source: The communication skills, attitudes, knowledge, societal system, and culture of the person sending the message.
- M: Message: The structure, elements, content, and management of the message, as well as any code, jargon, or specific language that may be used.
- C: Channel: How the message is transmitted and how it affects the senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.
- R: Receiver: Who encounters the message, their attitude, knowledge, communication skills, societal system, and culture.
According to Berlo’s model, the source and the receiver need to have some commonalities in order for communication to be effective.
The commonalities include:
- Communication Skills
- Social System
This builds on Shannon. Shannon identified three levels of Communication:
- Level A. How accurately can the symbols of communication be transmitted? (The Technical Problem.)
- Level B. How precisely do the transmitted symbols convey the desired meaning? (The Semantic Problem.)
- Level C. How effectively does the received meaning affect conduct in the desired way? (The Effectiveness Problem.)
The commonalities Berlo listed fit into Shannon’s Level B – The semantic level. The more sender and receiver have “shared codes,” the more likely the communication will be effective.
For instance, both the person sending the message and the person receiving it should have similar knowledge and speak the same language.
The message needs to be constructed correctly to suit both the receiver and the channel it will use.
Linear Models are fairly simple models in which a message is simply passed from sender to receiver. However, in real life, communication involves a give-and-take between senders and receivers.
Linear Models suggest listeners are simply passive receptacles for a sender’s message.
Linear Models are limited because they provide only one channel for only one message at a time.|
The reality is that we receive many messages on many channels simultaneously.
A Linear Model implies that messages are clear-cut, with a distinct beginning and end.
The reality is, at least with human communication, messages most often build on one another.
Communication is rarely, if ever, as neat and tidy as a linear model would suggest.
Hence the need for a better model.
So, it is not surprising the next evolution in Communication Models was the “Interactive Communication Model.”
Interactive Communication Models
In the move to a more dynamic view of communication, Interactive Communication Models adds the terms “Synchronous” and “Feedback” to the model.
- Synchronous means “in time.” (As opposed to asynchronous, which means “without time.)
- Email, text messaging, and voice mail are asynchronous. There is no expectation that there will be an immediate response.
- Conversations are synchronous. There is an expectation of a response to the message.
- Feedback is the response the receiver gives to a sender.
- Feedback can be verbal (i.e., “yes”) or nonverbal (i.e., a nod or smile).
- Most importantly, feedback indicates comprehension. It helps senders know if their message was received and understood.
In networking, there are specific terms “ACK” (positive Acknowledgment), “NAK or “NACK” (negative acknowledgment). This is a signal passed between communicating entities (or devices) to signify either acknowledgment or receipt of the message, rejection of a previously received message, or indicating some kind of error.
Acknowledgments and negative acknowledgments inform a sender of the receiver’s state so that the sender can adjust its own state accordingly if desired.
Acknowledgments can be either synchronous or asynchronous. The key is that both the sender and receiver agree, which it is.
When I leave a voice message, I agree that it is asynchronous. I have no expectation I will get feedback at any time.
However, asking how you are doing is synchronous. I have an expectation you will provide feedback to that message immediately.
By including flow and feedback, interactional models view communication as an ongoing process.
One notable feature of these models is the move away from terms like “senders” and “receivers” and toward using terms like communicators, actors, or “initiators.
This implies that communication is achieved only when people both send and receive messages.
Schramm – 1954
The principles of the model include the following:
- Communication is circular.
- Individuals in the communication process constantly switch between the roles of “encoder” and “decoder.”
- Communication should be reciprocal.
- Every party involved in the discussion is equally engaged and able to share their voice.
- Understanding is crucial.
- Having a shared understanding the communication enhances communication.
- Ongoing clarification and active listening are crucial for positive conversations.
Westley and Maclean Model – 1957
This model adds “Mass Communication.”
This is interesting because this brings us back to Aristotle. Aristotle saw his model as mass communication, not interpersonal communication.
And the point of difference between interpersonal and mass communication is the feedback.
In interpersonal, the feedback is synchronous, direct, and fast.
In Mass Communication, the feedback is asynchronous, indirect, and slow.
Westely and Maclean suggested that communication starts when a person responds selectively to some stimulas.
This model also added some new terms:
- Opinion Leaders
These terms will come in handy when we get to the next evolution of models.
Transactional Communication Models
Transactional models of communication are interesting because they begin to add the concept of “iteration.”
These models see communication as a “transaction.”
They see communication as a cooperative activity in which communicators co-create the interaction’s process, outcome, and effectiveness through a series of transactions.
They begin to identify communication as a series of transactions that move toward a goal.
Those transactions include forming bonds, unlocking value, and creating relationships.
In the Linear model, messages are sent from one person to another, and there is only 1 iteration. Once the receiver decodes the message, the communication is completed. Any message back to the sender would be considered a new message.
In the Interactional model, there are two iterations:
- Iteration #1 is the Sender to the Receiver
- Iteration #2 is the Receiver back to the Sender.
The Transactional Model calls groups these two iterations and calls them a “transaction.” Then, communication becomes a series of transactions.
The Transactional Communication Model sees Communication as an “ongoing” process with no specific Start or Stop.
However, there appears to be an agreement as to the goals of the transaction.
This model also recognizes that messages will influence the responses, or subsequent messages, produced in the communication interaction.
This means that messages do not stand alone but instead are interrelated.
The principle of interrelation states that messages are connected to and build upon one another.
The transactional model forms a good basis for communication theory because:
– People are viewed as dynamic communicators rather than simple senders or receivers
– There must be some overlap in fields of experience in order to build shared meaning
– Messages are interdependent.
Dean Barnlund – 1970
Dean Barnlund’s model of transactional communication explores immediate feedback (real-time) communication between people.
It is the first model I can find that introduces the idea of transactions over time, where the starting point for the next transaction is the ending point from the last. (This is directly related to the Fractal Communication Model I talk about below.)
It suggests that communicators can be a sender and a receiver simultaneously. (Perhaps this relates to Quantum Theory.)
Barnlund introduced the idea that there are different kinds of stimuli. He called an individual stimulus a “cue.”
For instance, cues, such as private cues (a person’s background), public cues (environmental context), and so on, can influence how we speak.
Barnlund introduces the concept that communication is enhanced if both the receiver and sender take responsibility for ensuring the communication leads to the right outcome.
Barnlund reinforces the idea that communication aims to arrive at a shared understanding.
Shared understanding is in constant flux since the interpretation of stimuli is in constant flux.
Barnlund’s model is based on a set of fundamental assumptions holding that communication is dynamic, continuous, circular, irreversible, complex, and unrepeatable.
Cues are of central importance in Barnlund’s model.
A cue is anything to which one may attribute meaning or which can trigger a response.
Barnlund distinguishes between public, private, and behavioral cues.
Public cues are available to anyone present in the communicative situation, like a piece of furniture or the smell of antiseptic in a room.
Private cues are only accessible to one person, like sounds heard through earphones or a pain in one’s chest.
Behavioral cues are under the direct control of the communicators, in contrast to public and private cues.
They include verbal behavioral cues, like making a remark about the weather, and non-verbal behavioral cues, such as pointing toward an object.
Barnlund also introduced the idea that both an intrapersonal and an interpersonal model exist.
The intra-personal model shows the simpler case where only one person is involved in the decoding and encoding processes.
For the inter-personal model, two people participate. They react to public and private cues and the behavioral cues the other person produces.
Dance’s Helical Model
The Dance Helical model suggests that communication is a circular process, wherein conversations become more complex as we dive deeper into the interaction.
It’s often represented visually by a helical spiral.
The model indicates that we gradually improve how we communicate over time by responding to the feedback provided by the people we communicate with.
As we communicate with each person in our team, we learn more about the situation in question and the person we’re connected with. This allows us to expand our circle and build on the information we’re sending to achieve specific goals.
Dance’s Helical model also suggests that communication is constantly evolving. As we learn and develop alongside our team members, our understanding of them and the world we’re operating in continues to evolve, allowing us to achieve goals more effectively.
Fractal Communication Model
In the 1960s, Benoit Mandelbrot developed a cohesive “fractal theory.”
Fractals provide a predictive model of iterative stability.
Here is the Mandelbrot Set formula:
f(c) = Z2+ c
Here is the result of that formula iterated over many times.
By using “Feedback” as the “f(c)” function, the efficiency of communication as the “Z2” variable, and the initial starting point of the communication as the “c” variable, Communication fits nicely into Fractal thinking.
Here is the formula.
Fractal Communication Formula
f(e) = eC((t+i)-n) + Starting Point
f = Feedback, Fractal, Function
e = Efficiency as measured by the distance to the Endpoint (or Goal)
C = Communication = ((T+S)-N) – ((Technical Value of the Communication + Information Value of the Communication) – Noise)
In other words, this would be:
“Fractals” describe the chances of reaching our goals.
Reaching our Goals is dependent on our Communication Efficiency.
Our Communication Efficiency is based on our ability to maximize communication’s technical and informational aspects and minimize the noise in our communication. (Which, by the way, is exactly what Shannon did with his groundbreaking 1948 paper.)
Here is the result.
In a perfect world, every communication act – “iteration” – would move us closer to the end goal. However, we don’t live in a perfect world. Therefore, we need to check our position after every iteration.
After every iteration, the question should be: Have we moved closer to the goal?
This movement could be “positive or “negative.” With positive communication, the iteration moves us closer to the goal. With negative communication, the iteration moves us further from the goal.
Communication, as a thing, is measured by the interaction between technical communication, Informational communication, and Noise.
- Technical Communication
- Measured by “Bandwidth.” The maximum amount of information possible.
- The ability of the receiver to “physically” connect to the sender.
- The degree of “shared codes.”
- Informational Communication
- The effectiveness of communication to affect change in a desired way.
- Anything that reduces effective communication.
- Static in radio systems is an example.
The “Fractal” formula for Communication applies the communication thinking developed by Claude Shannon in his work on “The Mathematical Theory of Communication” and iterates it over time.
Over time certain combinations of communication can be stable over time in the sense that the parties reached their goals.
Bernstein, N. (2006). Goin’ gangsta, choosin’ cholita. In S. Maasik & J. Solomon (Eds.) Signs of life in the USA: Readings on popular culture for writers (5th ed). (pp. 606-611). Boston: Bedford St. Martins.
For Further Reading
Anderson, J.A. (1996). Communication theory: Epistemological foundations. New York: Guilford Press.
Audi, R. (Ed.) (1995). The Cambridge dictionary of philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. A. Lavers (trans.) London: Paladin Books.
Barthes, R. (1988). The semiotic challenge. Oxford: Blackwell.
Bennett, A. (2000). Popular music and youth culture: Music, identity and place. London: Macmillan.
Berger, P.L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The Social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York: Anchor Books.
During, S. (2005). Cultural studies. New York: Routledge.
Griffin, E. M. (2009). A First look at communication theory (7th ed.) New York: McGraw-Hill.
Hall, S. (1986). On postmodernism and articulation: An interview with Stuart Hall. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 10, (2), 45-60.
Hoggart, R. (1958). The uses of literacy. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Manis, J., & Meltzer, B. (Eds.) 1978. Symbolic Interaction Boston: Allyn & Bacon
Strinati, D. (1995/2001). An Introduction to theories of popular culture. London and New York: Routledge.
von Bertalanffly, L. (1968). General systems theory: Foundations, development, applications. New York: Braziller.
Williams, R. (1976). Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana.