It would be easy to assume that communication has been the subject of study for hundreds of years, and in a general sense it has if you count language studies like rhetoric or english. But, communication, as its own academic field of study really got its start in the early 50’s. The advent of technologies like the telephone and television gave rise to new ways of thinking about the act of communication itself, prompting thinkers like Claude Elwood Shannon and Warren Weaver to develop new theories and models to help better  explain how it is that human beings share information. Another easy assumption would be that these theorists got these ideas right the first time, but a model for how humans communicate has undergone revisions ever since it was introduced.  Therefore, the focus of this lesson is to understand the communication model by following its evolution from its origins in the linear model, to the development of the interactive model, and finally visit the concept of transactional communication.

The Linear Model

When building a model, for anything really, the person doing the building is essentially trying to represent one thing for another. When the thing being modeled is a concept, like say communication, then the model builder is trying to simplify something that is very complex. The first attempts to model communication were very simple indeed; in fact, a little too simple. The models consisted of little more than a sender, a message, a channel, and a receiver. You see, Shannon and Weaver were primarily interested in communication through the telephone, and developed their model around its parts. The sender included the person on one end, the receiver included the person on the other, and the channel was the telephone itself. This model provided the beginning that would take on several evolutionary stages. For instance, Shannon and Weaver identified an element that they called noise, or anything that impeded the signal itself. 

Mini Glossary

Noise: in communication studies, anything that impedes the transmission of a message.

The strength of this model lies in its simplicity, but that turned out to also be a weakness. The complexities of communication were not captured by this model, so other elements were added to the model for the purpose of accuracy. One complexity that is omitted from this model is known as feedback. Some might think of this as that loud annoying buzz that you get when you put a microphone in front of a speaker, and technically it is, but feedback includes anytime when a receiver returns their own message in response to information from the receiver. Even simple nods of the head, or confirmation from the receiver counts as feedback. Communication models that lack feedback as an element are generally referred to as linear models of communication, and for many communication scholars this was unacceptable.

The Interactive Model

Thus, the next evolutionary stage of the communication model is commonly referred to as the interactive model. Some refer to this as having two linear communication models layered on top of each other in order to represent the element of feedback. There are generally seven parts to this model. The sender, message, channel, noise, receiver, feedback, and situation. Let’s address each element in order. 


We can understand the sender by understanding their credibility. Regardless of who is the sender of information, or what the context, there are some assumptions about a person’s credibility that arise from whoever the audience is. One way you can improve your credibility is by practicing their speech and organizing it well. 


The sender sends a message. A message is anything that the sender communicates. Notice that the message is not always what the sender intends to communicate. Unintentional messages are sent all the time, especially nonverbal messages. A speaker could come across as nervous when they are actually confident, angry when they are calm, and ignorant when they are intelligent. Everyone should be familiar with the idea of saying one thing when you meant another. 


The next element is the channel. Messages must be sent through channels, sometimes multiple channels simultaneously. A channel is the medium that the sender choose to send the message through. It could be face-to-face, through the television, text, the phone, a billboard, skywriting, interpretive dance, and the list goes on. The interesting part about the channel, in the communication model, is that which channel one chooses can greatly affect one’s message. Have you ever sent a text message that was meant to be sarcastic, but the person who received the message took it literally? If you would have said the exact same message, but face-to-face, there probably wouldn’t have been the same misunderstanding. 


But the channel isn’t the only thing that distorts a message. Noise, or interference also distorts a message. Interference can be internal or external. External interference are things that impede a message that originate from outside of the communicators, like the room temperature, loud noise, the weather, etc. Internal interference is anything that impedes communication and originates from within the communicators, like a  bad night’s sleep, or communication apprehension. 


If the sender is able to transmit a message, using an appropriate channel, and through the noise, only then can someone receive that message: the receiver. One complication that receivers bring to the communication model is that every human being has their own frame of reference. A frame of reference is the totality of a person’s experiences that shape the way they view the world. This includes a person’s culture, religious and political views, gender identity, age, race, sexual orientation, as well as innumerable others. 


Receivers also send messages of their own, and this is known as feedback. Just like any other message, feedback is delivered through channels and affected by noise. Feedback is also affected by the receiver’s frame of reference. There are certain behaviors in one culture that are completely acceptable forms of feedback that would be inappropriate in other cultures. 


Finally, the situation is the time and place where communication occurs. Examples of situations include the different expectations that people have at a funeral versus a wedding. While both situations might take place at the same location, and even have the same family members in attendance, it would be inappropriate to deliver a eulogy during a wedding toast.

Mini Glossary

Channel: the medium, through which, a sender chooses to transmit a message.

The Transactional Model

All of these elements are helpful ways to conceptualize all communication phenomenon, but there is one reality that complicates things even further. It is that people tend to send and receive messages simultaneously. The reason that the interactive model of communication, described just earlier, fails to account for this is that one subject is labeled the “sender” and the other the “receiver.” These labels oversimplify the roles that each individual is playing in the communication act. It is for these reasons that transactional model of communication has become very popular. The transactional model basically does away with the sender/receiver idea and considers all members to simply be “communicators” that are encoding and decoding messages simultaneously. If you think about it, it is really astonishing that we are able to transmit even the simplest of messages between people, yet the vast majority of human beings are able to communicate simple ideas with relative ease.

The communication model is still undergoing evolution as we discover more about this complicated, yet ever-present phenomenon. From the earliest attempts of the linear model, to the interactive model, to the transactional model, modeling communication has been a helpful way to understand one of the most basic of human behaviors.