A Non-Academic Look At Communication Theories

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well.” – Albert Einstein

Although I enjoyed my undergraduate studies in Communications, I’ve really valued my graduate courses at UTA.  Where it seems the undergraduate studies teach you the tools for success, graduate studies teach you why they work… which gives you an opportunity to adapt and innovate.

As I study for my comprehensive exams for my Masters in Communication this week, I realized how few resources there seem to be online that offer some insight on Communication Theory in easy to digest bits.  So, here we go!  These are a few of the theories I found the most interesting/useful.

Agenda-Setting Theory – The basics of this theory focus on telling people what to think about rather than what to think.  For instance, when Trump made racist comments about building a wall, it seems less likely that he really swayed how anyone already felt about people from Mexico, but it certainly made immigration the central topic of conversation.  Why does that matter?  In this example, it forced the political conversations to be about immigration reform.  A candidate who had been championing education or economics would then be forced to stray away from the more important topics that had been the focus of their campaign to engage in rhetoric about the topic at hand, which may gain them less support than if the conversations had been focused on their primary interests.

Framing Theory – Often paired with Agenda setting theory, framing theory looks more at what information is emphasized.  For instance, if a boy were to break his mother’s lamp, but then took the broken pieces and made a mosaic for his mother, their emphasis of his message when speaking to mom about it would likely try to emphasize how lovely the piece of art was rather than the fact that he had broken a lamp.  When people say they are wanting to “control their message”, they are often referring to how to frame the information they are going to be releasing.

Cognitive Dissonance – This is a concept that is pretty important in social psychology.    Cognitive Dissonance, more or less, says that everyone has an assortment of attitudes, perceptions, knowledge, and behavior that will impact how they respond to a message or idea.  It also implies that people are more likely to believe new information that aligns with their preconceived opinion rather than something contrary to their beliefs (which can often be rejected without much consideration).  This can be very polarizing, particularly when discussing hot button political topics such as gun control, abortion, or equal rights.  Outside of the political arena, it can have some interesting social implications as well.  For instance, no two people have the exact same perception of what the word “love” means because it is a concept that is constructed from every relationship they’ve ever seen or been a part of.  Someone who associates the term with the affectionate touch of their parents is going to have a much different perception of love than someone was manipulated to do things against their will with the phrase “You’d do it if you loved me.”  Same word, very different meanings based on experiences.

Semiotic Theories – Semiotic theories study of symbols and signs in communication… which is really pretty much everything.  It can be words, objects, body language, or actions that have meaning beyond what they simply represent.   Since there is never an objective relationship between language and reality, language shapes reality.  It can be somewhat complicated to study, but really pretty interesting if you can wrap your head around it.

Network Theory – Network theory is applicable to the study of technology, biology, and a wide variety of other fields, however I think it’s pretty fascinating to see how it works in communication.  If I tell a friend a secret, and they tell two people, who tell two people each, that message has moved through a network.  By understanding networks and how to study them, it becomes evident where the source of the message propagation was.  This example may seem somewhat childish, however if you start using the examination of network systems to look at things like “What caused the spread of the idea that vaccinations cause autism?” it suddenly becomes pretty interesting to figure out how that message infiltrates the population.  Propaganda studies coupled with an understanding of Network Theory is a powerful (if not scary) combination.

Diffusion of Innovations – A subset of network analysis, Diffusion of Innovations examines how a new idea, product, or believe gains traction.  It states that there are 5 different types of people who are involved in the success of an idea.

Innovators (2.5%) – For innovators, being first is important.  These are the people who will stand outside an Apple Store for hours, if not days, to be the first ones to get the new iPhone, regardless of the fact that it will be available without wait days later.  Someone who is an innovator in technology is likely very different than someone who is an innovator in fashion.  These people are the ones who start trends and movements, but only in something they care deeply about.

Early Adopters (13.5%) – The early adopters are the ones who help something get traction.  They often wait for the feedback of innovators before they will try something new, however they help spread the message.  For instance, I am much more likely to try a new app or game that my friend Rhett recommends because he follows these latest and greatest in those areas.  We have similar opinions in this area, so I let him filter through them, I try the ones he recommends that I think sound interesting, and then I recommend them to others.

Early Majority (34%) – If Rhett is an innovator, and I am an early adopter, someone who takes my recommendation is likely part of the early majority.  An idea or movement reaches its “Tipping Point” into success between 16-18%, so reaching the point where the early majority is utilizing your product is what can ultimately lead to success. These are the people who like the idea of progress, however they don’t make it part of their personal agenda.

Late Majority (34%) – These are the people who usually aren’t particularly resistant to change in an idea, however they aren’t going to go out of their way to support it either.  They’ll eventually use new technology or adapt to trends, however they probably were still using their Razor phone until it just eventually died and had to be replaced.  A smart phone is nice, but the other worked just as well.

Laggards (15%) – These people are usually actively resistant to change, and therefore the most difficult to sway their opinion on a particular matter.  These are the people who still use landlines on rotary phones simply because it’s what their comfortable with and you have zero interest in change.

An important side note: Businesses often try to target the “early and late majority” with new products because they are the largest market segment.  Unfortunately, many of these attempts fall flat because they majority often looks to the innovators and early adopters for their opinion about a product before they will ever try it.  Sinek suggests that attempting to bypass that 15% in a strategic plan is often a death wish for a product, idea, or movement.


Start With Why

Last Fall, I was introduced to Simon Sinek’s TED talk “Start With Why” during my Theories of Persuasion class at UTA.  I was fascinated by the concepts and watched the video several times over the following weeks.  When I learned it was the teaser for a book, I added it to the reading list.
All in all, the book is pretty brilliant and something that every leader, entrepreneur, and executive could likely find immense value in.  I preaches the idea that customers buy what we do not why we do it; a profit is a result of purpose, not a purpose in itself.
Sinek sites three levels of a message: what, how, and why.  Most companies advertise the “what” of their product, potentially even the “how” of their business model, but it’s rare that a company’s message will share the “why” they are doing business.  He introduces the idea that the biological makeup of the brain to explain how “why” messages appeal to the limbic brain that is responsible for behavior (like trust and loyalty) and decision making (like purchase behavior).
There are valuable insights on almost every page of this book, however I thought I’d share one take away and one (in my opinion) very powerful quote.
Something he discusses in the book is how successful ideas need visionary leaders to drive the “why” of their company, organization, movement, etc.  Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and Walt Disney can inspire people to follow them towards their dream.
However the “why” people always need good “how” people to succeed.  These are the people who can work behind the scenes to mechanize the vision and ideas and see them into action; without them, it simply remains a dream without becoming a reality.
I feel this is really where one of my strong suit is.  I have no problem standing in front of a room full of people and rallying them towards an idea, however I find myself enjoying and being the most successful at strategizing and planning by looking at an opportunity or challenge as a puzzle to figure out the most efficient ways to make it work.
The following was one of the biggest messages that stuck out to me in the book.  It’s not uncommon that businesses might think that they have it all figured out, but really they are just succeeding despite themselves.
“There is barely a product on the market today that customers can’t buy from someone else for about the same price, about the same quality, about the same level of service, and about the same features… but if you ask most businesses why their customers are their customers, most will tell you that it is because of their superior quality, features, price, or service.  In other words, most companies have no clue why their customers are their customers.  This is a fascinating realization; if companies don’t know why their customers are their customers, odds are good that they don’t know why their employees are their employees either.  If most companies don’t really know why their customers are their customers or why their employees are their employees, then how do they know what to do or how to attract more employees, and encourage loyalty among those that they already have?  The reality is, most businesses today are making assumptions based on a set of incomplete, or worse, completely flawed assumptions about what is driving their business.”

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