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English: skills for learning
English: skills for learning

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1.1 Communicating in everyday life

It is important that listeners and readers understand the message sent by a person and that they interpret it correctly. In the next activity you will focus on the importance of giving your listeners and readers a clear message.

Activity 1

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Figure 2 shows two colleagues who have just left the office and are queuing at the bus stop. Read their conversation and answer the following questions in the box below:

  1. Why doesn’t the woman on the left understand what the woman on the right is talking about?
  2. What could the woman on the left do to make sense of the other woman’s message?
  3. Could the same message be expressed more clearly? How?
Described image
Figure 2 Ineffective communication
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  1. The three statements seem unrelated. The meaning of each statement is easy to see but the statements do not work together to provide a clear message. In particular, what is the topic of the woman’s message? Why is the woman mentioning information about her garden, her insurance company and her baby? The other woman only knows her as a colleague and may know very little about her situation at home, so they cannot use any background information to make sense of her words.
  2. The woman on the left would probably try to make a link between the letter from the insurance company and the baby’s toothache. Perhaps the toothache is an injury and the insurance company will pay for treatment. This interpretation, however, does not explain why the woman on the right also talks about cutting the grass. In addition, these are not issues one expects to hear about when queuing at the bus stop. The woman on the left could also look at the expression on the other woman’s face and consider the immediate context. Her worried expression and the fact that the bus is delayed could help her to make sense of her words. After trying to interpret the woman’s message, the woman on the left would probably conclude that her colleague does not know what she is talking about.
  3. Perhaps the woman on the right is worried because the bus is late and she needs to get home soon and deal with the three issues she mentions. To make this clear to her listener, she could have started by introducing the topic of her message: ‘I have got so much to do when I get home!’ This introductory statement helps to explain what the following statements are about, but the listener may also need more information. For example, they may wonder why the letter needs to be dealt with and why the woman is talking about her busy day at this time. A concluding sentence would help to clarify her message: ‘So I really hope the bus arrives soon!’

In everyday conversation, if what other people say is unclear to us, we can use the immediate context to clarify their message. We generally also have the possibility of asking them for an explanation and thus gaining some useful background information.

However, if communication takes place in writing, and the message is unclear or contains unexpected information, these options are not immediately available. This is because the writer is not usually present, and it may not be possible to communicate with them or gain information about the context unless they describe it. Therefore writers need to:

  • clearly introduce the theme of their piece of writing
  • explain and illustrate their ideas in detail
  • clearly connect these ideas and information
  • conclude.

As you can see, successful written communication proceeds from general to specific. It first introduces a theme in general terms and then it develops it in more detail through explanations, evidence and examples.

In the next sections you will learn how to communicate clearly through essays, a particular type of writing.