8 Communication models explained

Every day, we communicate with one another. We all know how to do it, right? 

Actually, not always. 

To understand the ways we communicate, communication theorists have developed models that illustrate how communication takes place.

In a way, as the US communication theorist Harold D. Lasswell said, the theorists’ task is to answer the question “Who says what to whom with what effect?”

In this guide, we will introduce you to the models of communication that are most frequently encountered in the literature. 

First, we will define them and explain how these models help with workplace communication.

After that, we will take a look at major models of communication and explain them in detail.

Without further ado, let’s begin!

Communication models explained - cover

What are models of communication?

According to Denis McQuail, “a model is a selective representation in verbal or diagrammatic form of some aspect of the dynamic process of mass communication.”  

In other words, models of communication provide us with a visual representation of the different aspects of a communication situation.

It is not easy to determine where a conversation begins and ends, because communication is a complex process. That is why we have models of communication — to simplify the process of understanding communication.

Some models are more detailed than others, but even the most elaborate ones cannot perfectly represent what goes on in a communication encounter. 

How can models of communication help with work communication?

Since communication is the lifeblood of any organization, we have to strive towards understanding how it works. 

So, using communication models helps us make better decisions and enables us to be successful communicators. 

Understanding communication models can help us:

  • Think about our communication situations more deliberately, 
  • Better prepare for future situations, and
  • Learn from our previous experiences. 

Do you remember the last time you had a misunderstanding with a colleague? 

Was the miscommunication caused by a wrongly interpreted tone of a message? 

Or maybe the email you had sent to your coworker ended up in the spam folder, so they didn’t even get it? 

Whatever the misunderstanding was, we have to acknowledge the fact that some communication encounters are successful, others not so much.

That is why we have so many current models that help us plan successful communication situations

Now that we have seen what communication models are and why they are important for our workplace communication, it is time we take a closer look at the 8 models of communication, divided into 3 categories.

8 Major models of communication

There are 8 major models of communication, that can be divided into 3 categories:

  1. Linear models — Only look at one-way communication. The most prominent linear models of communication are:
    1. Aristotle’s model of communication
    2. Laswell’s model
    3. The Shannon-Weaver model
    4. Berlo’s S-M-C-R model
  2. Interactive models — They look at two-way communication. These are the following:
    1. The Osgood-Schramm model
    2. The Westley and Maclean model
  3. Transactional models — They look at two-way communication where the message gets more complex as the communication event progresses. These include:
    1. Barnlund’s transactional model
    2. Dance’s helical model

In the following paragraphs, we will get acquainted with each of these models in detail, starting from linear models. 

Linear models

Linear communication model
Linear communication model

Linear models of communication suggest that communication takes place only in one direction

The main elements in these models are:

  • The channel, 
  • The sender, and 
  • The receiver

Simply put, the sender transmits the message via a channel. 

The channel is the medium and changes the message into speech, writing, or animation. 

The message then reaches the receiver, who decodes it. 

This model is straightforward and is used mainly in marketing, sales, and PR, in communication with customers.

We already mentioned the most prominent linear models of communication, and now it is time for a more detailed analysis of each one of them.

1. Aristotle’s Model

Aristotle’s communication model
Aristotle’s communication model

This is the oldest communication model that dates back to 300 BC. 

Aristotle’s model was designed to examine how to become a better and more persuasive communicator

It is a foolproof way to excel in public speaking, seminars, and lectures, where the sender (public speaker, professor, etc.) passes on their message to the receiver (the audience). So, the sender is the only active member in this model, whereas the audience is passive. 

Aristotle identified three elements that improve communication:

  • Ethos — defines the credibility of the speaker. Speaker gains credibility, authority, and power by being an expert in a field of their choice.
  • Pathos — connects the speaker with the audience through different emotions (anger, sadness, happiness, etc.)
  • Logos — an important element that signifies logic. It is not enough for the speech to be interesting — it needs to follow the rules of logic.

Aside from that, Aristotle suggested that we look at five components of a communication situation to analyze the best way to communicate: 

  • Speaker 
  • Speech 
  • Occasion 
  • Target audience 
  • Effect 

🔸 Aristotle’s Model example 

Picture this: 

Professor Hustvedt is giving a lecture on neurological disorders to her students. She is delivering her speech persuasively, in a manner that leaves her students mesmerized. Professor is in the center of attention, whereas her audience — her students, are merely passive listeners. Nevertheless, her message influences them and makes them act accordingly. 

So, professor Hustvedt is the speaker, and her lecture on disorders is the act of speech

The occasion in question is a university lecture, the students being her target audience

The effect of her speech is the students gaining knowledge on this subject matter.

One of the major drawbacks of this model is that it does not pay attention to the feedback in communication because the audience is passive.

2. Laswell’s Model

Laswell’s communication model
Laswell’s communication model

The next linear model on our list is Laswell’s Model of mass communication.

According to this model, communication is the transmission of a message with the effect as the result. 

The effect is the measurable and obvious change in the receiver of the message, that is caused by the elements of communication. If any of the elements change, the effect also changes. 

Laswell’s model aims to answer the following 5 important questions regarding its elements: 

  1. Who created the message? 
  2. What did they say?
  3. What channel did they use (TV, radio, blog)?
  4. To whom did they say it?
  5. What effect did it have on the receiver?

The answers to these questions offer us the main components of this model:

  • Communicator
  • Message
  • Medium
  • Audience/Receiver
  • Effect 

🔸 Laswell’s Model example

Let’s say you are watching an infomercial channel on TV and on comes a suitcase salesman, Mr. Sanders. He is promoting his brand of a suitcase as the best. Aware that millions of viewers are watching his presentation, Mr. Sanders is determined to leave a remarkable impression. By doing so, he is achieving brand awareness, promoting his product as the best on the market, and consequently increasing sales revenue. 

So, Mr. Sanders is the communicator

The message he is conveying is the promotion of his brand of a suitcase as the best. 

The medium he uses is television.

His audience consists of evening TV viewers in the US.

The effect he is achieving by doing this is raising brand awareness and increasing sales revenue. 

3. The Shannon-Weaver Model

The Shannon-Weaver communication model
The Shannon-Weaver communication model

Maybe the most popular model of communication is the Shannon-Weaver model. 

Strangely enough, Shannon and Weaver were mathematicians, who developed their work during the Second World War in the Bell Telephone Laboratories. They aimed to discover which channels are most effective for communicating. 

So, although they were doing the research for engineering endeavors, they claimed that their theory is applicable to human communication as well. 

And, they were right. 

So, first, let’s consider the components of the Shannon-Weaver model of communication. These are:

  • Sender
  • Encoder
  • Channel
  • Decoder
  • Receiver 

Shannon and Weaver were the first to introduce the role of noise in the communication process. In his book Introduction to Communication Studies, John Fiske defines noise as “anything that is added to the signal between its transmission and reception that is not intended by the source.”  

The noise appears in the form of mishearing a conversation, misspelling an email, or static on a radio broadcast.  

🔸 The Shannon-Weaver Model example

Paula, a VP of Marketing in a multinational company, is briefing Julian on new marketing strategies they are about to introduce next month. She wants a detailed study on the competitor’s activity by the end of the week. Unfortunately, while she was speaking, her assistant Peter interrupted her, and she forgot to tell Julian about the most important issue. 

At the end of the week, Julian did finish the report, but there were some mistakes, which had to be corrected later on. 

Let’s take a moment to briefly analyze this example.

Paula is the sender, her mouth being the encoder

The meeting she held was the channel

Julian’s ears and brain were decoders, and Julian was the receiver

Can you guess Peter’s role? 

Yes, he was the noise.

The trouble in this process was the lack of feedback. Had Julian asked Paula for clarification after Peter interrupted her, the whole communication process would have been more effective, and there would have been no mistakes. 

Updated version of the Shannon-Weaver Model 

Since the original version didn’t include it, the principle of feedback was added to the updated version, so the model provided a more truthful representation of human interaction. The concept of feedback was derived from the studies of Norbert Wiener, the so-called father of cybernetics. 

Simply put, feedback is the transfer of the receiver’s reaction back to the sender. 

It allows the speaker to modify their performance to the reaction of an audience. 

Maybe the most important function of feedback is the fact that it helps the receiver feel involved in the communication process. 

That makes the receiver more receptive to the message because they feel their opinion is being taken into account.

4. Berlo’s S-M-C-R model

Berlo’s S-M-C-R communication model
Berlo’s S-M-C-R communication model

Berlo’s model of communication is unique in the sense that it gives a detailed account of the key elements in each step.

This model explains communication in four steps:

  1. Source 
  2. Message
  3. Channel
  4. Receiver

Let’s consider the key elements that affect how well the message is communicated, starting with the source. 

The source

The source or the sender carefully puts their thoughts into words and transfers the message to the receiver. 

So, how does the sender transfer the information to the receiver?

With the help of:

  • Communication skills —  First and foremost, the source needs good communication skills to ensure the communication will be effective. The speaker should know when to pause, what to repeat, how to pronounce a word, etc.
  • Attitude —  Secondly, the source needs the right attitude. Without it, not even a great speaker would ever emerge as a winner. The source needs to make a lasting impression on the receiver(s). 
  • Knowledge — The third element on our list is knowledge. Here, knowledge does not refer to educational qualifications. It refers to the clarity of the information which the source wants to transfer to the receiver.  
  • Social system —  Moving on to the fourth element on the list — the social system. The source should be familiar with the social system in which the communication process takes place. That would help the source not to offend anyone. 
  • Culture — Last but not least, culture. To achieve effective communication, the source needs to be acquainted with the culture in which the communication encounter is taking place. This is especially important for cross-cultural communication
The message

The speaker creates the message when they transform their thoughts into words. 

Here are the key factors of the message:

  • Content — Simply put, this is the script of the conversation. 
  • Elements — Speech alone is not enough for the message to be fully understood. That is why other elements have to be taken into account: gestures, body language, facial expressions, etc. 
  • Treatment — the way the source treats the message. They have to be aware of the importance of the message so that they can convey it appropriately.
  • Structure — The source has to properly structure the message to ensure the receiver will understand it correctly. 
  • Code — All the elements, verbal and nonverbal, need to be accurate if you do not want your message to get distorted and misinterpreted.
The channel 

To get from the source to the receiver, the message goes through the channel.

All our senses are the channels that help us communicate with one another. 

Our sense of hearing lets us know that someone is speaking to us. 

Through our sense of taste, we gather information about the spiciness of a sauce we are eating.

Our sense of sight allows us to decipher traffic signs while driving.

We decide whether we like a certain perfume or not by smelling it. 

By touching the water we feel whether it is too cold for a swim.

The receiver

A receiver is a person the source is speaking to — the destination of the conveyed message.

To understand the message, the receiver should entail the same elements as the source. They should have similar communication skills, attitudes, and knowledge, and be acquainted with the social system and culture in which they communicate.

🔸 Berlo’s S-M-C-R Model example 

Watching the news on the television is the perfect example of Berlo’s S-M-C-R Model of communication.

The news presenter is the source of the news and she conveys the message to the audience. The news is the message, the television — the channel, and the audience are the receivers of the message. 

Now that we got acquainted with linear models, it is time we move on to a little more complex and dynamic, interactive models of communication.

Interactive models

Interactive communication model
Interactive communication model

As more dynamic models, interactive models of communication refer to two-way communication with feedback.

However, feedback is not simultaneous, but rather slow and indirect.

Interactive models are used in internet-based and mediated communication (telephone conversations, letters, etc.). 

Let’s take a look at the main elements of these models:

  • Sender
  • Message
  • Receiver
  • Feedback
  • Field of experience

You probably noticed the new, previously not seen, element — field of experience. 

The field of experience represents a person’s culture, past experiences, and personal history. 

All of these factors influence how a sender constructs a message, as well as how the receiver takes it. Every one of us brings a unique field of experience into communication situations.

We have already mentioned the most noteworthy interactive models of communication. 

Now it is time for us to consider them in greater detail.

5. The Osgood-Schramm Model

The Osgood-Schramm communication model
The Osgood-Schramm communication model

In their book Communication Models for the Study of Mass Communications-Routledge, Denis Mcquail and Sven Windahl say that the emergence of this model “meant a clear break with the traditional linear/one-way picture of communication.” 

This model is useful for describing interpersonal, synchronous communication, but less suitable for cases with little or no feedback.

The Osgood-Schramm model is a circular model of communication, in which messages go in two directions. 

There are four principles in this model: 

  1. Communication is circular — individuals involved in the communication process are changing their roles as encoders and decoders. 
  2. Communication is equal and reciprocal — both parties are equally engaged as encoders and decoders.
  3. The message requires interpretation — the information needs to be properly interpreted to be understood.
  4. There are three steps in the process of communication: 
  • Encoding 
  • Decoding 
  • Interpreting

In this model, there is no difference between a sender and a receiver. Both parties are equally encoding and decoding the messages. The interpreter is a person trying to understand the message. 

Furthermore, this model shows that information is of no use until it is put into words and conveyed to other people. 

🔸 The Osgood-Schramm Model example

Imagine you have not heard from your college friend for 15 years. Suddenly, she calls you, and you start updating each other with what happened during the time you have not seen each other. 

In this example, you and your friend are equally encoding and decoding messages, and your communication is synchronous. You are both interpreting each other’s messages. 

In Information theory and mass communication, Schramm even says that “it is misleading to think of the communication process as starting somewhere and ending somewhere. It is really endless. We are really switchboard centers handling and re-routing the great endless current of information.”

6. The Westley and Maclean Model

The Westley and Maclean communication model
The Westley and Maclean communication model

The Westley and Maclean model is primarily used for explaining mass communication.

This model introduces environmental and cultural factors to the process of communication. Namely, according to this model, the communication process does not start with the source/sender, but rather with environmental factors.

The Westley and Maclean model also takes into account the object of the orientation (background, culture, and beliefs) of the sender and the receiver of messages. 

The very process of communication starts with environmental factors which influence the speaker — the culture or society the speaker lives in, whether the speaker is in a public or private space, etc.  

Aside from that, the role of feedback is also significant.

This model consists of nine crucial components: 

  1. Environment (X)
  2. Sensory experience (X¹)
  3. Source/Sender (A)
  4. The object of the orientation of the source (X²)
  5. Receiver (B)
  6. The object of the orientation of the receiver (X³)
  7. Feedback (F)
  8. Gatekeepers (C)  
  9. Opinion leaders

Now that we have seen what the elements of communication in this model are, let’s look at all of them in greater detail.

9 Key elements of communication in the Westley and Maclean Model

As mentioned above, this model shows that the communication process does not start from the sender of the message, but rather from the environment. 

So, we will start with this element.

Environment (X)

According to the Westley and Maclean Model, the communication process starts when a stimulus from the environment motivates a person to create and send a message. 

🔸 The Westley and Maclean Model example

Imagine that on your way to the office, you witness a road accident. This is the stimulus that would nudge you to call your friends and tell them about what you had seen, or call your boss to say you are going to be a bit late. 

So, the communication process in this example does not start with you, but with the road accident you have witnessed. 

Acknowledgment of the environmental factors in communication allows us to pay attention to the social and cultural contexts that influence our acts of communication.

Sensory experience (X¹)

When the sender of the message experiences something in their environment that nudges them to send the message, we are talking about sensory experience as an element of communication.

In the example above, this sensory experience would be witnessing a road accident. 

Source/Sender (A)

Only now does the sender come into play.

In the above-mentioned example, you are the sender, as well as a participant in the interpersonal communication situation

However, a sender can also be a newscaster sending a message to millions of viewers. In that case, we are talking about mass communication

The object of the orientation of the source (X²)

The next element of communication in this model is the object of the orientation of the source. 

Namely, the object of the orientation of the source is the sender’s beliefs or experiences. 

If we take the previously-mentioned road accident as an example, you (A) are concerned (X²) that you are going to be late for work because of the accident (X¹), and that is why you are calling your boss. 

Receiver (B)

The receiver is the person who receives the message from the sender. 

In mass communication, a receiver is a person that watches TV, reads a newspaper, etc.

When speaking about interpersonal communication, a receiver is a person that listens to the message. 

In the example with a road accident, mentioned above, receivers of the message are your friends and your boss. 

The object of the orientation of the receiver (X³)

The object of orientation of the receiver is the receiver’s beliefs or experiences, which influence how the message is received. 

For example, a skeptical person (B) watching the news is critical (X³) towards the message. 

Feedback (F)

Feedback is crucial for this model because it makes this model circular, rather than linear. 

As a matter of fact, feedback influences how messages are sent. 

That means that a receiver and a gatekeeper are sending messages back to the sender. 

After they have received the feedback, the sender modifies the message and sends it back. 

Let’s go back to our first example (about the road accident). 

So, you have witnessed the accident and feel the urge to call your best friend. 

You: “There was a terrible accident downtown!”

Your friend: “My goodness! Are you hurt?”

You: “No, no, I just witnessed it. I wasn’t involved! Don’t worry!”

In this example, after the feedback from your worried friend, you modify your message and send it back to her. 

Gatekeepers (C)

This element usually occurs in mass communication, rather than in interpersonal communication. 

Gatekeepers are editors of the messages senders are trying to communicate to receivers. 

For example, these are newspaper editors that edit the message before it reaches the readers. 

Opinion leaders

Again, this element of communication refers to mass communication situations. 

Namely, opinion leaders have an immense influence as an environmental factor (X) on the sender of the message (A). 

These are political leaders, celebrities, or social media influencers. 

Now that we got familiar with interactive models, all we have left are transactional models. 

Transactional models

Transactional communication model
Transactional communication model

Transactional models are the most dynamic communication models. 

Their key components are:

  • Encoding
  • Decoding 
  • Communicators
  • The message
  • The channel 
  • Noise 

In these models, communication is viewed as a transaction, meaning that it is a cooperative process in which communicators (a new term for senders and receivers, which first appears in these models) co-create the process of communication, thereby influencing its outcome and effectiveness. 

In other words, communicators create shared meaning in a dynamic process.

Aside from that, transactional models show that we do not just exchange information during our interactions, but create relationships, form cross-cultural bonds, and shape our opinions. 

In other words, communication helps us establish our realities.

These models also introduced the roles of social, relational, and cultural context.

Moreover, these models acknowledge that there are barriers to effective communicationnoise

We have already mentioned the most prominent transactional models of communication, and now it is time to meticulously analyze them.

7. Barnlund’s Transactional Model

Barnlund’s communication model
Barnlund’s communication model

Barnlund’s Transactional Model explores interpersonal, immediate-feedback communication, and is a multi-layered feedback system. 

That means that the sender and the receiver change their places and are equally important. Feedback for the sender is the reply for the receiver, and both communicators provide feedback. 

At the same time, both sender and receiver are responsible for the communication’s effect and effectiveness. 

The main components of Barnlund’s Transactional Model are:

  • Encoding
  • Decoding 
  • Communicators
  • The message (including the cues, environment, noise), and
  • The channel

This model accentuates the role of cues in impacting our messages. So, Barnlund differentiates between:

  • Public cues (environmental cues),
  • Private cues (person’s personal thoughts and background), and
  • Behavioral cues (person’s behavior, that can be verbal and nonverbal). 

All these cues, as well as the environment, and noise, are part of the message. Each communicator’s reaction depends on their background, experiences, attitudes, and beliefs. 

Examples of Barnlund’s Model of communication include:

  • Face-to-face interactions, 
  • Chat sessions, 
  • Telephone conversations, 
  • Meetings, etc. 

Let’s illustrate this model with an example from a business messaging platform Pumble

An example that shows a misunderstanding due to the cultural differences in celebrating certain holidays (Pumble business messaging app)
An example that shows a misunderstanding due to the cultural differences in celebrating certain holidays (Pumble business messaging app)

🔸 Barnlund’s Transactional Model example

Why was there a misunderstanding in this conversation? 

This misunderstanding has arisen due to cultural cues. 

Namely, Catherine had thought that Irene wanted a day off on July 4th. 

However, Irene comes from Norway and celebrates Independence day on May 17th. 

On that day, she does not show up at work, to Catherine’s bewilderment because she has expected Irene to take a day off on July 4th, on US Independence Day. 

So, due to cultural cues, there was a misunderstanding between them. 

Still, this misunderstanding could have easily been avoided, had they cleared up the dates by providing each other with feedback

8. Dance’s Helical Model

Dance’s helical communication model
Dance’s helical communication model

According to Dance’s Helical Model, communication is seen as a circular process that gets more and more complex as communication progresses. 

That is why it is represented by a helical spiral

With every cycle of communication, we expand our circle, and each communication encounter is different from the previous one because communication never repeats itself.

Additionally, in the process of communication, the feedback we get from the other party involved influences our next statement and we become more knowledgeable with every new cycle. 

In their book Communication: Principles for a Lifetime, Steven A. Beebe, Susan J. Beebe, and Diana K. Ivy state: 

“Interpersonal communication is irreversible. Like the spiral shown here, communication never loops back on itself. Once it begins, it expands infinitely as the communication partners contribute their thoughts and experiences to the exchange.”

🔸 Dance’s Helical Model example 

Dance himself explained his model with the example of a person learning throughout their life. 

Namely, a person starts to communicate with their surroundings very early on, using rudimentary methods of communication. 

For instance, a baby cries to get the mother’s attention. Later on, they learn to speak in words, and then full sentences.

During the whole process, we build on what we know to improve our communication. 

Every communication act is a chance for us to learn how to communicate more effectively in the future, and feedback helps us achieve more effective communication. 

In a way, our whole life is one communicational journey toward the top of Dance’s helix.

Wrapping up: Communication models help us solve our workplace communication problems 

Communication in real life is too complex to be truly represented by communication models, but they help us examine the steps in the process of communication, so we can better understand how we communicate both at the workplace and outside of it.

Let’s sum up the key takeaways from this guide.

In this guide, we have covered the most important models of communication, divided into three categories:

  • Linear models — they see communication as a one-way process. These are mainly used in marketing, sales, and PR, in communication with customers.
  • Interactive models — Used in internet-based and mediated communication, they refer to two-way communication with indirect feedback. 
  • Transactional models — as most dynamic communication models, these are the most complex models of communication, which best reflect the communication process.

Although none of these models represent our communication 100%, they can help us detect and solve potential problems and improve our overall communication skills.

References

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