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5 Questions to Analyze Any Communication

Communication is complex. Students need to be able to write to different audiences. They need to create an appropriate voice for each topic and purpose. They need to understand how to get their point across in a larger context. All of this complexity can be bewildering. When I help students analyze communication situations, I use a simple graphic:

Communication Situation Graphic
  • Sender refers to the creator of the message.
  • Message refers to the topic, main point, and purpose.
  • Medium refers to the way in which the message is communicated.
  • Receiver refers to the person who gets the message.
  • Context refers to the larger picture that the message fits into.

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Simple But Powerful

All communication situations contain these five basic elements. Written and spoken communications follow this pattern, but so do film, dance, art, drama, sculpture, architecture, marketing, and music. Whenever people use a medium to say something to other people, there is a communication situation. As a result, you can use this simple diagram to help students analyze

  • writing assignments,
  • works of literature,
  • paintings,
  • movies,
  • commercials,
  • tweets and other interactions on social media,
  • pop songs,
  • news reports,
  • speeches, and the list goes on.

Using the Five Questions

To analyze a communication situation, simply lead students through a discussion about the five parts:

  1. Who is the sender?
  2. What is the message?
  3. What is the medium?
  4. Who is the receiver?
  5. What is the context?

Say that your class is studying the Civil War, and you are focusing on the Gettysburg Address. Here is a sample discussion:

Abe Lincoln

You: Let's analyze the Gettysburg Address. Who is the sender of this speech?

Tim: Abraham Lincoln.

You: What role is he fulfilling here?

Tim: He is president of the United States.

You: What role does he have for the Confederate States?

Tim: Well, I guess he would be their enemy.

You: Who would Lincoln be to slaves in the Confederate States?

Tim: He would be their best hope.

You: So, even though Abraham Lincoln is one person, he plays many different roles for many different people in this situation. Now let's think about what medium Lincoln is using.

Sharlee: He's giving a speech.

You: What kind of speech?

Sharlee: It's a dedication speech. He's dedicating a new graveyard.

You: Right. That's the medium he originally used. What medium are we using?

Sharlee: Well, we read it off a Web site.

You: So, that's a completely different experience than hearing it in person, standing in a field that is about to be a graveyard for the people who fell at Gettysburg.

Sharlee: Yeah. That would be almost creepy.

You: And then you have the 6 foot 4 president of the United States standing there and giving a speech after so much bloodshed.

Sharlee: Yeah. That's really different than just reading it.

You: I'm going to show you a video of a group of people delivering this speech. . . . What differences did you note about hearing the speech rather than reading it?

Michou: It was so much easier to understand when people were reading it aloud.

You: What made it easier?

Michou: You could hear in their voices what parts were more important. And they repeated some words over and over.

You: So, tone of voice and emphasis make a big difference for understanding. What else helped with understanding?

Michou: Well, sometimes they looked up from the sheet and made eye contact. And sometimes they looked like they were almost going to cry.

You: Right. Facial expressions, eye contact, emotion—all of these things help us understand what the words mean.

Michou: And don't forget the pictures they were showing, which really made you think about where this was going on. And the music, too.

You: All of those components added to the meaning. So, let's talk about what the words themselves mean. What is the main point of the Gettysburg Address?

Karla: It's basically that the North is going to keep fighting.

You: Yes. That's definitely part of what Lincoln is saying. What is that whole "Four score and seven years ago" part about? Remember that we said a "score" was 20 years, so four score and seven would be 87 years. What happened 87 years before the Battle of Gettysburg?

Karla: He said, "Our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation."

You: Right. He's referring back to the American Revolution. Why would he do that? Why is he connecting the American Revolution to the Civil War?

Karla: Both were really big wars.

You: Big in what way?

Karla: The whole country was fighting in both wars.

You: So, the whole country depended on the outcome of those wars, right? Lincoln says, "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." What does he mean by that?

Karla: Just what you said—if the United States doesn't win this war, it will just fall apart.

You: Right. If a democratic government will just split whenever there is a major disagreement, then democracy is a failed kind of government. But it isn't a failure, is it?

Karla: So that's what the last part means, "that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

You: Exactly. That's Lincoln's main point with this speech. But did you notice that at the end of the video, there was a promotion for a group that is trying to save Gettysburg from being developed?

Karla: That's like a whole other main point added on by the filmmaker.

You: Right. This message has had different meanings in many different places. All right, we've looked at the sender, the medium, and the message. Who is the receiver of this speech?

Sharlee: Well, the people who were standing there.

Tim: But also us. We're the receivers. We just read it. We just heard it.

Michou: The people who performed it were also receivers. They had to read it and learn it before they could deliver the speech.

You: You all are exactly right. Not only were there specific receivers in the crowd on that day, but there have also been receivers throughout time. In fact, this speech is carved in stone at the Lincoln Memorial. Millions of people read it every year. Even if our civilization were suddenly wiped out, most likely those words would remain like the hieroglyphics in the pyramids, to be rediscovered and deciphered thousands of years later.

Tim: Wow. That's a lot of receivers.

You: So, finally, let's talk about the context. What came right before this speech?

Sharlee: The Battle of Gettysburg.

You: And what was so significant about this battle that would make the president travel from Washington to give a speech?

Michou: A lot of people died.

Sharlee: There were other battles that were just as big. But this was one of the only times the South attacked on Northern soil.

Tim: So partly what Lincoln wanted to do was to say, "Don't do that again."

Michou: That's what he was saying to the South. To the North, he was saying, "We won this battle, and we're not going to give up until we win the whole war."

You: Right. There are different messages going out to different receivers.

Sharlee: Wow. All in one speech.

You: All in one speech.

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