Introduction to Professional Communication
Professional Writing Today: A Functional Approach is heavily focused on building specific skills and teaching you professional writing techniques that can be used in day-to-day workplace writing. However, we also need to keep “the big picture” in mind.
How does communication work as a process? How should people communicate with each other? What is expected of communicators in today’s workplaces? What cultural and interpersonal communications information do you need to thrive in a semi-social, multicultural workplace environment?
All of these questions—and more—need to be addressed before we can get into the details of professional writing.
Q: How does communication work as a process?
Every day, we receive messages, either in text or spoken form, that make us feel something. Maybe it made you excited or annoyed, happy or sad. But what specifically made you feel that way? Could you specifically articulate why the message made you respond in the way you did?
MacLennan’s Nine Axioms of Communication
This is where MacLennan’s (2009) Nine Axioms of Communication come in. They can help us understand how communication works and they can help us identify effective communication strategies and diagnose problems.
MacLennan (2009) defines an axiom as “a universal principle or foundational truth that operates across cases or situations” (p. 8). In other words, the axioms of communication are inescapable principles and we must always strive to be conscious of them, whenever we engage in any sort of communication.
Here are all nine axioms listed out.
- Communication is not simply an exchange of information, but an interaction between people.
- All communication involves an element of relation as well as content.
- Communication takes place within a context of “persons, objects, events, and relations.”
- Communication is the principal way by which we establish ourselves and maintain credibility.
- Communication is the main means through which we exert influence.
- All communication involves an element of interpersonal risk.
- Communication is frequently ambiguous: what is unsaid can be as important as what is said.
- Effective communication is audience-centred, not self-centred.
- Communication is pervasive: you cannot not communicate
These axioms help you design effective messages, so that you better understand what you should say and how you should say it. Just as importantly, the axioms tell you what you should not say and what you should avoid when designing and delivering a message.
Bear in mind that, while each axiom emphasizes a specific aspect of communication, the axioms are interconnected; therefore, attempting to ignore or downplay the importance of any of them can impair your ability to communicate effectively.
The Shannon-Weaver Model of Communication
Communication textbooks often adopt the Shannon-Weaver model (1948)—also known as the transmission model—to represent the linear process of communication, as shown in the image below.
In this linear model, a encodes information and, through a transmitter, sends it to a , who subsequently decodes the message. According to this model, information seems to move in a simplified, linear manner, even though the process can be complicated by , which is information that is added unintentionally to a message during transmission, and , which is information that the receiver transmits back to the sender, sometimes without even realizing they are doing so.
This is a simple and elegant model of communication that can help you visualize the process anytime you’re going to be communicating.
The first rule of communication is to know your audience and put them first. You can use this model to think about how to best encode your messages for them and and how to send it to them. You can also think about what types of interference (noise) could prevent your message from being received, understood, or accepted. Finally, you can think about what feedback you’ll look for when determining if your message was successful.
Q: How should people communicate with each other?
Clearly. Honestly. Transparently. Patiently. Thoughtfully. Fairly. Positively. Interactively. Respectfully. Ethically.
All of those are good answers; this section is focused on the last one: ethical communication.
Every one of us is responsible for how we communicate and what we communicate. This responsibility can be interpersonal, managerial, or even legal. Audiences have high expectations regarding ethical communication (even if they aren’t always the most ethical communicators themselves).
Examples of unethical communication
If a business owner lies to potential investors about the state of the company’s assets before inviting an investment in the company, that communication is both unethical (dishonesty) and illegal (fraud).
If a manager promises their employees that everybody will get an equal raise, some employees will expect an equal raise in percentage terms and others will expect an equal raise in dollar terms. Lower-income employees will benefit the most from a raise that is equal dollar-to-dollar, but higher-income employees will benefit the most from a raise that is equal in percentage terms. This communication was unclear and falsely raising the hopes of employees is unethical.
If a casual acquaintance constantly sends text messages after you don’t pick up on a call, you might feel annoyed or even harassed. Your acquaintance is being impatient and this form of harassment is unethical.
There are countless other examples of unethical communication. Identifying and understanding potential missteps is complex and requires patient, thoughtful analysis. Indeed, haste and/or carelessness are common causes of unethical communication.
When you are communicating in a professional workplace, there’s a strong expectation that you’ll communicate ethically. There are a few core issues you’ll need to understand, such as privacy, confidentiality, and the duty to communicate.
Confidentiality: Information is owned. The owner of that information gets to decide what to do with it. If you have information that is rightfully owned by somebody else, you need to know if that information is confidential (or perhaps merely private). Virtually all organizations have confidential documents, especially employee records, legal documents, and certain financial documents. If you’re receiving confidential information, you have a duty to safeguard that information. Revealing confidential information, even accidentally, is unethical and can have serious repercussions, including legal consequences.
Privacy: Some information may not be confidential, per se, but it is nonetheless private. In a free democracy, voters are allowed to vote in private so that nobody can see how they marked their ballot. Ballots have no identifying marks to show how any particular person voted, but the tallies of votes are public information. If somebody tells you that they voted a particular way, that’s not confidential information, but it was kept private (until the voter voluntarily chose to disclose the information). In a business setting, a lot of communication takes place in private, often even when it is not confidential. Violating the privacy of communications can also have terrible consequences, though, and is seen as unethical.
Duty to communicate: In some situations, you have an ethical and/or legal duty to communicate. If you are an accountant auditing the finances of another company and you detect irregularities in that company’s records, you have a duty to report the matter. If you are a local government and you want to collect the annual tax roll, you have a duty to communicate the tax rate to residents.
Every industry and profession has its own set of communication responsibilities. Ethical communication relies on you knowing your obligations to various stakeholders and meeting them.
Q: What cultural communications information do I need to thrive in a socially complex, multicultural workplace environment?
Culture involves beliefs, attitudes, values, and traditions that are shared by a group of people. From the choice of words (message), to how you communicate (in person, in print, digitally, or otherwise), to how you acknowledge understanding with a nod or a glance (non-verbal feedback), to the internal and external interference, all aspects of communication are influenced by culture.
Culture is part of the very fabric of our thought and you cannot separate yourself from it, even as you leave home, defining yourself anew in work and achievements. Every business or organization has a culture and, within what may be considered a global culture, there are many subcultures or co-cultures. For example, consider the difference between the sales and accounting departments in a corporation. You can quickly see two distinct groups with their own symbols, vocabulary, and values. Within each group, there may also be smaller groups and each member of each department comes from a distinct background that, in itself, influences behaviour and interaction.
Intercultural communication is a fascinating area of study within business communication and it is essential to your success. One idea to keep in mind as you examine this topic is the importance of considering multiple points of view. If you tend to dismiss ideas or views that are “unalike culturally,” you will be less able to learn about diverse cultures. If you cannot learn, how can you grow and be successful?
Through intercultural communication, we create, understand, and transform culture and identity. One reason you should study intercultural communication is to foster greater self-awareness (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Your thought process regarding culture is often “other focused,” meaning that the culture of the other person or group is what stands out in your perception. However, the old adage “know thyself” is appropriate, as you become more aware of your own culture by better understanding other cultures and perspectives. Intercultural communication can allow you to step outside of your comfortable, usual frame of reference and see your culture through a different lens. Additionally, as you become more self-aware, you may also become a more ethical communicator, as you challenge your , that is, a tendency to view one’s own culture as superior to other cultures.
Q: How should people communicate with each other?
Interpersonal communication is complex and dependent on so many variables, such as those noted above.
The changing social, political, religious, sexual, artistic, and economic conditions of our world, country, region, and even organization need to be accounted for.
In North America, recent communication adaptations include declaring one’s and making . These were done to account for shifting expectations in society and to help account for historical wrongdoings.
The term “political correctness” is much maligned and even weaponized, but it really amounts to describing people in the terms by which they reasonably request they be described and being respectful in your communication about other people. However you may feel about the term or any of these issues, there are professional expectations that you’ll be sensitive and respectful in your communications.
Many professionals find themselves in trouble because, when they communicate, they either do not know about certain sensitivities (especially when there’s an expectation that they should know) or they stubbornly refuse to apologize for errors and to adapt to the shifting realities in which they live.
As professional communicators, we need to be able to use respectful, appropriate, and non-judgmental language to ensure that we are communicating clearly, respectfully, and ethically. Pay close attention to the issues that arise in politics and society around communication; learning opportunities abound and learning the easy way is much better than learning the hard way, which can involve a lot of unpleasantness for all.
Q: What is expected of communicators in today’s workplaces?
Again, there are a lot of good answers here: ethical communication and sensitivity are discussed above. Adaptability, however, is the focus here, specifically adapting to new technologies.
The following sentence could have been written with earnest sincerity on any day in the last 175 years: “With the rapid expansion of global communications, businesses need to be able to adapt to new technologies and capitalize on the advantages they offer.” This could have been said when the telegraph was invented. It could have been said when the telephone was invented. It could have been said when the television was invented. It could have been said when the internet was invented. It could have been said when video conferencing became popular during the Covid-19 pandemic. The point is this: you will need to adapt to technology. (Also, you might now realize that the sentence above is a cliché that speaks more to the writer’s lack of knowledge than anything about today’s business context.)
Good communicators stay current with changing technologies, whether that’s new hardware (such as handheld devices) or new software (such as social media apps).
In this book, we’ll focus on contemporary word processing and editing technology, especially Microsoft Word, which is an extremely popular and very effective program, available for both Apple and Windows computers. Google Docs, which is popular with students, is not used nearly as much in professional workplaces. However, many of the functions work in a similar, albeit simplified way.
In general, students would be wise to cultivate skills with the MS Office Suite, specifically Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, along with common calendar apps, email programs, and social media, especially LinkedIn.
The Big Picture
For now, that’s the big picture of communication in the professional workplace. Be sensitive to the environment in which you work, locally and globally. Account for differences in culture and put the needs of others before yourself. Adapt to new technology and learn to use it well. Communicate ethically.
Most of this book will focus on the details of written communication in today’s professional workplace, but never lose sight of “the big picture.”
Communication Theory. (n.d.) [Diagram of Shannon-Weaver’s Model of Communication]. https://www.communicationtheory.org/shannon-and-weaver-model-of-communication/
MacLennan, J. (2009). Effective communication for the technical professions (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.
Martin, J.N. & Nakayama, T.K. (2010). Intercultural communication in contexts (5th ed.). McGraw-Hill.
This chapter is adapted from Effective Professional Communication: A Rhetorical Approach by Rebekah Bennetch, Corey Owen, and Zachary Keesey, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
Bennetch, Owen, and Keesey adapted content from “Business Writing for Everyone” by Arley Cruthers (on openpress.usask.ca). It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
a person who sends a message
a person who receives a message from a sender
information that is unintentionally added to a message or that confuses or disrupts a message during transmission, also known as "interference"
information that a receiver sends back to the sender
the belief that one's own culture is superior or acting in such a way as to treat one's own culture as superior or normative, judging other cultures on the preconceived notion that one's own culture is normative or superior
Generally, a shorter word that stands in for a longer word or noun phrase, often replacing a proper noun.
Examples: Jennifer walked to the store, but then she was disappointed that it was closed.
In that sentence, "she" is a pronoun referring to "Jennifer" and "it" is a pronoun referring to "the store."
Culturally, a self-made declaration of the pronouns that should be used in reference to oneself.
Example: Professional Writing Today: A Functional Approach was written by Sam Schechter (he, him, his).
In that sentence, the author is declaring that he should be referred to with male pronouns.
The practice of declaring, either verbally or in writing, that one is living, working, or otherwise occupying the territory of a specific Indigenous nation whose lands are not currently under their own full control.
Example: "The lands occupied by Douglas College campuses are on the territories of the Coast Salish Peoples of the QayQayt and Kwikwetlem First Nations."