Failures in communication

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As mentioned in The communication process, a communication has only succeeded when the information given by the sender has been received and understood by the recipient. If the recipient has not understood the information, then this may not necessarily be the recipient's fault. Typically, ineffective communications can be attributed to one of three things:

  1. A poor message;
  2. Poor transmission;
  3. Poor reception;

A Poor Message

The most critical element in any communication is the message itself. If the message is not correct, then there is no way that the communication will be effective, regardless of the fastidiousness or efficiency of the sender and the recipient.

Ensuring that the message is correct is the largest part of the Technical Communicator's job (and in many cases the only part). Much of this wiki is devoted to ensuring that the message is correct, but in summary, the principal requirements of the Technical Communicator are to ensure the following:

  • That the message is technically accurate;
  • That the message is clear and unambiguous.

There are three principal reasons why a message may be considered 'poor' (assuming that the Technical Communicator' has performed the basic tasks of making sure that the communication is free from spelling and grammatical errors, and assuming no technical or formatting errors). These are:

  • The message was too short;
  • The message was too long;
  • The message was ambiguous.

The Message was too short

The problem may be that the message did not contain all of the required information. The consequence of this is that the recipient either did not receive enough of the message to make sense of the parts they did receive, or they could understand the parts the did receive, but had to guess at the missing parts (or, more often, did not even realize that there were missing parts).

Here, the obvious solution is to send a longer message. In some cases this may not be possible, for example where limited 'space' (either physical, temporal, or bandwidth) is available in the transmission medium. Here it may be necessary to compress the message, but if this is done, it is necessary that recipient must know that the message is compressed, and must know how to decompress or interpret the 'short-form' version of the message. This may be by being in possession of the required decompression algorithm (for example, with 'zip' files), or simply having a quick reference of possible codes an their meanings (for example, with Incoterms).

Message was too long

The problem with the message could be that it was too long (or too verbose) for the recipient to effectively digest it.

A common reason for this is that the same (long) message is being sent to several recipients, each of whom needs one part of the message, for a different purpose. Here, the solution is obviously to split the message into several individually-targeted messages each of which meets the needs of one (category of) recipient, and then send the relevant messages to the individuals who need it.

Another reason for a message being deemed 'too long' is that the recipient may well need all of the information in the message at some stage or other, but for the purposes of this communication they only need a certain part of the information, and they are not able (or not willing) to locate this information within the body of the larger communication. Here, better navigability is required. This may be as simple as providing more logical headings, a table of contents, an index, and so on.

The key point here is making sure that the recipient receives (or can locate) only the information that they require at the specific time that they need it. It is not acceptable to simply provide a documentation set for a system and announce "It's all in there. R.T.F.M.!" when the user is trying to perform a specific task, and needs to have instructions on that specific task, NOW.

Message was ambiguous

Solution: Better choice of words

Poor Transmission

'Poor transmission' in the context of Technical Communication does not refer to the medium by which the message is delivered. For example, if a telephone line is of poor quality, then this is largely out of the scope of the Technical Communicator's responsibility (though, of course, a good Technical Communicator will seek an alternative medium). Instead, poor transmission refers to the way in which the message is issued. Specifically, the Technical Communicator needs to ensure the following:

  • That the message is being delivered in a format that the recipient both expects and understands;
  • That the message is being delivered when the recipient needs it, and where the recipient expects to find it.

The Technical Communicator can avoid most errors in transmission by understanding the recipient, and by understanding the way in which the communication will be used.

Poor Reception

There are a number of reasons why a communication may not be received correctly or efficiently. Not all of these are accidental, but all of them are avoidable if the Technical Communicator is aware of them. The three main causes of poor reception are:

  • A lack of awareness;
  • Obstructionism;
  • A lack of understanding.

A lack of awareness

As stated above, an effective communication needs a sender and a receiver. If the person to whom the communication is directed does not know that the communication is taking place, then you effectively have no receiver, and the communication fails.

Alternatively, the receiver may receive the communication, but may be unaware that the communication is intended for them. An example of this would be a warning siren - the receiver will undoubtedly receive the communication (assuming that they are within earshot), but if they are unaware that the siren is telling them something (for example, that it is time to go home) then, again, the communication fails.

A lack of awareness of a communication can normally be solved through training - informing the user of the types of communication that they can expect to receive, where to find these communications, and when to look for them.

A lack of awareness that a communication is intended for a specific recipient may, in some circumstances, also be solved by training. For example, informing factory workers that a siren means the end of the shift. However, this type of training is always required in advance of the actual communication, and this may be difficult to achieve.

Where possible, the specification of the intended audience for a communication should be an integral part of the message itself. A common example of this is an office memorandum, which typically includes a "To" line identifying the staff members to whom the memo applies.


Sometimes, a communication may `fail' because the recipient simply refuses to receive it. This is typically when the communication is asking the recipient to do something they don't want to do, or telling them something that they don't want to hear.

In these cases, it may be necessary to ensure that the recipient does receive the communication. This can be done by physically delivering the communication to the recipient (either in person, by courier, or by registered post). For electronic communications, it may be possible to place an automatic acknowledgment on the communication, so that the sender is informed as soon as the recipient receives the communication.

Another tactic is to enlist the support of someone in authority. Quite often the Technical Communicator has almost zero authority within the organization, and communications sent out under the Technical Communicator's name may not be taken seriously, or may simply be ignored. Where possible, communications should be sent out by the authority who has commissioned them. If this is not possible, then try to get a cover letter signed by the higher authority, so that it is clear that the communication is on their behalf, even if they are not physically performing the communication themselves.

In some cases, all that is required is issuing the communication in a format or location in which it cannot be overlooked. When wheel clamps were first introduced into Britain, one enterprising driver whose car was clamped claimed that he did not see the clamp, and when he attempted to drive off the clamp damaged his car - for which he successfully sued the wheel clamping company. To remedy this, the wheel clampers started to stick a notice to the front windshield of the car, directly in front of the driver's seat, warning the owner of the presence of a clamp. As it would be impossible to drive off without seeing this notice, drivers could no longer claim that they had not received the communication!

A lack of understanding

A lack of understanding is an inability to comprehend an otherwise correct communication (as distinct from an illegible communication, which is dealt with under Failures in communication#Poor Transmission). If the communication is not understood it will not be effective, regardless of how good a job the sender thinks they have made of it.

Unfamiliar Terminology

Typically, a lack of understanding is because the message uses language or terminology with which the recipient is not familiar. This is an increasingly-common problem, as acronyms and abbreviations become more pervasive - and are re-used with different meanings across different industries (or sometimes within the same industry). {TBD: provide example}

Alternatively, the recipient may not understand the communication simply because the communication is at an intellectual level that is higher than that of the recipient (through no fault of the recipient). For example, consider the following text:

Human monocytes were cultured for 24 h in serum-free AIM-V medium, followed by 24-h maturation by polyriboinosinic polyribocytidylic acid (polyI:C). Short term cultured, polyI:C-maturated DC, far more than immature DC, showed typical mature DC markers and high allogeneic stimulatory capacity and had high autologous stimulatory capacity in an influenza model system using peptide-pulsed DC. Electroporation of mRNA as an Ag-loading strategy in these cells was optimized using mRNA encoding the enhanced green fluorescent protein (EGFP). Monocytes electroporated with EGFP mRNA, followed by short term, serum-free differentiation to mature DC, had a phenotype of DC, and all showed positive EGFP fluorescence. Influenza matrix protein mRNA-electroporated monocytes cultured serum-free and maturated with polyI:C showed high stimulatory capacity in autologous T cell activation experiments.

Extracted from The Journal of Immunology, 2002, 169: 1669-1675, Messenger RNA Electroporation of Human Monocytes, Followed by Rapid In Vitro Differentiation, Leads to Highly Stimulatory Antigen-Loaded Mature Dendritic Cells

The text is technically correct, but if it was presented to a junior school student, there is every chance that the student would not understand it. That is because they are unfamiliar with medical terminology.

Missing Prerequisite Knowledge

Another reason for a lack of understanding may be that the communication assumes that the recipient is in possession of certain prerequisite knowledge that the recipient actually does not have. For example, instructions on installing a software application on a Personal Computer (PC) may (rightly or wrongly) assume that the person installing the application is capable of performing basic tasks like turning the PC on, loading the operating system, and so on.

There are a number of steps that can be taken to mitigate the problem of a lack of understanding. The first of these is to make sure that you fully understand the audience - their prerequisite knowledge, skill level, and so on. See Defining the audience for more information on this topic.

Of course, audience analysis is not always possible and so assumptions are often made about the prerequisite knowledge, intellectual level, and capabilities of the user. If this is the case then it may be worthwhile adopting some form of `test' (and I use the term very loosely) to ensure that the recipient of the communication has in fact understood it.

Where this kind of feedback is not possible (for example, in a printed manual), and doubts as to prerequisite knowledge or familiarity with terminology exist, then it may be worthwhile either providing the recipient with the prerequisite knowledge or a glossary of terms, or advising them of where this knowledge can be found.

It is also advisable to clearly identify any required prerequisite knowledge at the start of the communication. This may be a case of identifying the user level of a communication (such as "This document is intended for Power Users only"), or a list of prerequisite publications or training courses (such as "This procedure must only be executed by personnel who have attended the Advanced System Maintenance course").

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