2.4 Oral and written communication
Humans use language to communicate. This is an obvious statement, but what is language and how do we use it? Language is basically a set of symbols with associated meanings. These symbols are delivered using a set of rules for stringing the symbols together to generate additional meaning. Humans use mostly sounds to represent these symbols, although as an Italian I can communicate common meanings by only using a range of hand gestures! We string together phonetic sounds to make words, and we string together words to make sentences. The set of rules we have created to structure our delivery of words is our grammar. For example, a basic rule is that every sentence should contain a verb (a word conveying action) and a subject (a word conveying who or what is doing the action or on whom or what the action is having an impact).
There are more than 5 million distinct words in the English language: The Oxford Dictionary of English (2005) lists more than 300,000 entries; William Shakespeare used about 15,000; the average person whose first language is English knows about 4300 words, although they understand the exact meaning of only 70 per cent or so of these.
We string together these words into sentences to answer a basic set of questions: Who? How? What? Why? When? And where? But, the use of words to answer these questions through oral communication or written communication has significant constraints.
If you look at the last few paragraphs, you may notice that what I am trying to communicate is severely limited by the fact that I can only deliver one basic concept at a time. In other words, my communication process is linear. As a result, I have to be very careful that my concepts follow a logical sequence: concept A helps to explain concept B, which in turn helps to explain concept C. In many cases I have no choice but to tackle a subject in increasing detail. If I want to show the relationship between concept A and concept C, I have to start all over again with a new sentence. Any change in my sequential approach – for example if I want to go back to a higher level of detail – has to be usually associated with a visible break, such as a new paragraph.
So the use of the written or oral form of communication favours a specific subset of mental models: those that require a logical interpretation and which follow a sequence of increasing detail. A precise sequence is followed and the model revealed goes into greater and greater detail (linear sequential thinking). Of course, written and oral communication can be used in many other ways too, but most people get quickly turned off when subject to forms of written and oral communication that 'do not get to the point'.