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On Effective Modern Communication

The purpose of communication is ultimately to convey an idea from one person to another.

Certainly, modern devices allow messages to be duplicated, facilitating simultaneous communication from one person to potentially large segments of our world's population, but all communication ultimately follows the same basic process.

The Communication Process in a Nutshell

Every attempt at communication follows this basic sequence of steps:

  1. the sender encodes an idea into a message,
  2. the sender projects the message into a medium,
  3. the message is contained within the medium,
  4. the receiver retrieves the message from the medium, and
  5. the receiver decodes the message as an idea.

For example, if one person asks another to turn on a light, the sender encodes the idea into a verbal request, projects the request by speaking, the sound waves travel through air, the receiver hears the message and – if the receiver understands the sender's language – interprets the sender's words into an idea.

Data Encoding

Within each step in the communication process lays potential for miscommunication. The receiver will understand an idea that closely approximates that intended by the sender only if the sender, medium and receiver are all reasonably effective. This requires senders to become diligent in packaging and projecting messages in a way that will have the greatest likelihood of being understood by the receiver, especially when the sender cannot receive immediate feedback and – if necessary – resend (perhaps after reforming) the message.


Recognizing the importance of forming understandable messages when transmitting important data, many organizations now use the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, commonly known as the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, as summarized in the table below. (wiki:NATO_phonetic_alphabet)

International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet
(Morse code)
Letters (Roman)
A•—Alfa (Alpha)(AL-FAH)
C—•—•Charlie(CHAR-LEE) or
J•———Juliett (Juliet)(JEW-LEE-ETT)
U••—Uniform(YOU-NEE-FORM) or
Numerals (Arabic)

Modern computers use mechanisms similar to Morse code to store and communicate data as groups or streams of electrical signals. Many common character coding schemes used include the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) (wiki:ASCII), I.B.M.'s Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code (EBCDIC) (wiki:EBCDIC) and Unicode (wiki:Unicode).

Too Little Data to Decode

Unless one knows how to decode message data as intended by the sender, the data cannot be converted into a usable form; at only that point does data become information.

For example, one might easily represent a particular set of data as { 01100111, 01100101, 01100101, 01101011 }, { 0x67, 0x65, 0x65, 0x6b } or { 103, 101, 101, 107 } (or a Morse code equivalent); unless the receiver understands how to decode the data as intended, it does not inform the receiver and thus remains only data, not information. (Though, for this example, many readers certainly will be able to guess correctly.)

As another example, while traveling through the Caribbean several years ago, my travel companion had trouble buying postage stamps to send a postcard. His great height and girth gave him a deep, resounding voice, which caused him to project his request poorly as "stomps". Seeing the vendor's puzzlement, my friend initially only loudened his request, "Stomps!" – surely frightening the relatively small vendor – rather than reforming his message by putting the word into a recognizable context that might have cued the vendor to decode the message as intended, such as "postage stamps".

More Data Than Intended

Conversely, some senders might obfuscate their messages – intentionally or not – by providing more data than is needed to convey the idea central to the message.

Similarly, in some instances, a receiver might understand how to glean more information from a message than was intended by the sender. This happens through the far-too-common practice of distributing working files, such as those made using the Microsoft Office collection of programs, including Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel. These programs often bloat their working files (such as those suffixed with ".doc" and ".xls" file name extensions) with considerable revision information that may be easily extracted by computer operators of even only moderate knowledge and skill. Therefore, these files should never be shared unless actively collaborating with multiple authors. As an example, employment offer letters sent in Microsoft Word format have been known to contain the names of and compensation offered to many prospective employees at once, sometimes crippling the sender's ability to bargain and potentially exposing the sender to other severe liabilities.

(Sun Microsystems has spun off a very good no-cost, fully-compatible alternative to the Microsoft Office collection, available at The same care should be taken with its working files.)

Message Acknowledgment

In some situations (as with my friend in the Caribbean), at the end of this process, the roles and sequence are reversed, allowing the sender of the original message to receive an acknowledgment if the that message was received correctly or a "negative acknowledgment" if it was not.

In the example of one person asking another to turn on a light, the receiver might simply acknowledge the request by turning on the light or reply with a "negative acknowledgment" such as asking the sender to repeat the message (possibly using another language) or by saying, "Do it yourself."

Computer Data Communication Systems

These acknowledgment and "negative acknowledgment" responses are often abbreviated "ACK" and "NACK", respectively, usually as basic parts of handshaking mechanisms in larger computer data communication systems.

In 1977, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), began describing the structures and functions of these systems using a layered model of network architecture that became known as the Open Systems Interconnection Basic Reference Model (O.S.I. Model), summarized through its layers in the table below. In 1982, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), along with the I.T.U.-T. (known prior to 1992 as C.C.I.T.T.), began to adopt the O.S.I. Model as an international standard, which became ISO 7498:1984. (wiki:OSI_Model)

Summarized in the table below, O.S.I. layers are analogous to the basic communication steps in the sequence presented above: its host layers represent the steps performed by human senders and receivers and its media layers represent the function performed by the media in the intermediate step.

Open Systems Interconnection Basic Reference Model
abstract7Applicationnetwork process to application
6Presentationdata representation and encryption
5Sessioninter-host communication
segments4Transportend-to-end connections and reliability (t.c.p.)
packets3Networkpath determination and logical addressing (i.p.)
frames2Data Linkphysical addressing (mac & l.l.c.)
bits1Physicalmedia, signal and binary transmission

Choosing a Method of Communication

One should always seek a method of communication appropriate to the message's priority.

Message Priority

To gauge a message's priority, one should weigh both the importance and urgency of the message. For example, a message having high importance but low urgency would have roughly the same priority as a message having low importance but high urgency, and a message having high importance and high urgency would have higher priority than both. Examples of specific modes follow in the table below.

Relative Priorities of Selected Communication Methods
verbal dialog
verbal dialog via telephonetelephone (S.M.S.) text message
tele-facsimile (fax)Internet instant message
mediumlegal process
document server
telegramInternet electronic mail
express couriernewspaper
lowcertified mailfirst-class mailpostcard
magazinebulk/second-class mail
lowestbookInternet World-Wide Web

As you have likely deduced from the examples in the table above, a message's priority generally correlates with its cost. Both senders and receivers should and will generally tend to prioritize messages in order of descending cost. Therefore, as a sender, you effectively "put your money where your mouth is".

Illustrations and Information Graphics

In conveying an idea, a picture is often worth a thousand words.

All aspiring communicators should become familiar with the work of Edward R. Tufte, who is widely considered the dominant living scientist in the areas of data presentation and information graphics. A professor emeritus at Yale University, where he has taught courses in statistical evidence, information design, and interface design, Tufte writes, designs, and self-publishes books on analytical design, and periodically travels the United States teaching one-day workshops.

Imaging and Photography

Despite the growing popularization of digital cameras, the best bargain I've found in photography – especially for taking snapshots – is to continue using 35-millimeter film cameras, including the single-use variety. Though the resolution of the images varies by location, most of my local H-E-B Grocery Stores (based in San Antonio, Texas) will process a roll of 35-millimeter photographic film and burn a c.d.-rom of digital images from that roll for only $3.19 for one-hour service or $2.19 for 24-hour service, plus $0.20 for each pair of 4"x6" double prints ($0.10 each print).

(Unfortunately, Microsoft Windows will generally attempt to automatically run programs from any type of media when inserted, which potentially surrenders control of the computer to anyone writing software with malevolent intentions, and this blatant security flaw has long been well-documented and often exploited. Therefore, no one should ever insert any type of media into a computer running Microsoft Windows.)


Many laws govern publishers of information. These mainly include (but are not limited to) intellectual property, defamation and libel laws.

Intellectual Property

"Intellectual property" (often abbreviated "i.p.") is a broad – and sometimes nebulous – term used to describe a product of intellectual endeavor that has been reduced to a tangible form.

Associated with intellectual properties are rights of ownership and attribution. The right of ownership refers to rights of possession and exclusive use, as with most other things. The right of attribution refers to recognition as the creator of a work. As examples, authors, musical composers, sculptors, painters, performers, and inventors typically sell their rights of ownership but retain their rights of attribution.

One may not republish intellectual property owned by another without the owner's permission. Doing so is called infringement, commonly known as piracy.

In general, attribution should always be given to the creator of a work. Misrepresenting the work of another as one's own work – even if only through omitting an adequate citation – is called plagiarism.

Conversely, a work should not be attributed to someone who did not create a work, as doing so could defame the person attributed. A false attribution could cause a famous person to disclaim the attribution, as in the case of The Paradox of Our Time (sometimes titled The Paradox of Our Age), an essay circulated via e.mail that is often attributed to and publicly disclaimed by George Carlin. (The urban legends Web site attributes the essay to Dr. Bob Moorehead, a former pastor of Seattle's Overlake Christian Church.) Another example includes another widely-forwarded electronic mail message alleged to be a 1997 M.I.T. commencement speech given attributed to author Kurt Vonnegut; the message's popularity spawned its use as lyrics for a popular song by cinema director Baz Luhrmann Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen), though Wikipedia's authors cite that the message's source was Mary Schmich's Chicago Tribune column dated 1997/06/01 Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young. (wiki:Wear_Sunscreen) In the latter example, attribution to Vonnegut may be justified as a parody, though the republication of the column clearly violates the newspaper's copyright.

Common types of intellectual property are summarized below. For more information, see the article On Intellectual Property.


In the United States of America, trademarks may be registered and registrations and applications may be searched via the United States Patent and Trademark Office Web site. Under United States law, registration of a mark serves as giving "constructive notice", meaning that even if one claims ignorance of a mark (unknowingly infringes), one is still liable for damages.

Since 1977, the United States of America automatically protects works under copyright law upon their creation.

Some creators and/or owners of works may wish to prematurely release their works into the "public domain", though most publishers do not.

Defamation and Libel

A publisher may not libel another by writing something defamatory that the publisher could not willingly support with facts in a court of law.

False attributions (described above), for example, may defame or libel a person who did not create a work, especially if the work is of poor quality or claims an endorsement was made by that person.


Nothing erodes a publisher's credibility faster than poor spelling and grammar. One should always use automated spelling and grammar checkers and proofread work. The number of proofreaders should increase proportionately with the size of the publication's intended audience.

For more information on publishing via the World-Wide Web, see Designing Documents for the World-Wide Web and Publishing on the World-Wide Web.

For information about specific communication topics, see On Intellectual Property, On the Formatting of Dates and the Electronic Entertainment Abbreviations Glossary.

For an example of a set of rules for collaborative writing, see Syncopated's Writing Style Guide.