Understanding Communication Competencies (Part 1)

Understanding Communication Competencies

The Top Hat Survey (Schaffhauser, 2020) of 3,500 Higher Education American and Canadian students finds only 8% deem online learning satisfactory for them. Informal discussions with British students show a similar result. They miss the bonding coming from learning together in the same space but suggest that the way content is communicated is a big factor. The Association of Project Management Survey (2020) puts communication, engagement, and management as the vital workplace competencies to survive and thrive. However, communication is rarely a subject for formal study, with few people trained in its use. This article considers how technology supports both the learning of content and the development of communication competencies. It defines and locates these before looking at how to present information via technology.

Background: What Is The Communication Process?

Communication is the verbal and non-verbal process of transmitting information and common understanding from one person to another. It is the exchange and creation of thoughts, ideas, emotions, and comprehension between sender(s) and receiver(s) to build and maintain relationships. In educational settings, most time is spent communicating, but one cannot assume that meaningful messages occur in all exchanges. There are reasons why a message is not received: the language form and level are not appropriate; the receiver of the missive does not like the giver and so is not inclined to accept it, along with context effects, like noise distractions, taking attention away from the process. A receiver may hear but not listen to or legitimize a message.

Being constantly engaged in encoding and decoding information does not ensure one is an expert communicator. Understanding is a personal matter between people, who interpret messages differently according to their abilities, knowledge, and experiences. Misunderstandings happen because meanings are in people not in words. Communication does not occur until information and understanding have passed between sender and receiver with feedback regulating the process. With only 15% of the brain needed to process language, there is plenty of opportunity for interference! (Sage, 2000)

  A Simple Communication Model

--------------------- NOISE-----------------------

SENDER ­­------feedback--------------message------feedback------------RECEIVER

-------------------- NOISE ----------------------

Noise refers to anything that might interfere with the message exchange, including environmental distractions and personal animosities that might exist between participants.

What Are The Communication Competencies?

1. Knowledge Of Informal And Formal Communication

Command of informal conversational moves is needed before managing extended formal talk- text narratives.

Informal Conversational Moves

  1. Follows conversation thread
  2. Asks questions
  3. Answers questions
  4. Assembles and contributes ideas
  5. Shows maintenance behavior: eye contact, smile, head nod, etc.

In conversation, one can control action by asking to slow proceedings for information to be repeated if misunderstood, as relations are equal. However, this is not easy in formal presentations when power dynamics are different, with a speaker transmitting prepared information to an audience expected to listen. To cope with a formal style you must be able to concentrate and deal with a sequence of ideas which develop in stages.

The 7 Narrative Levels (from research by Sage, 2000)

  1. Record: produce ideas
  2. Recite: arrange ideas
  3. Refer: compare ideas
  4. Replay: sequence ideas in time
  5. Recount: introduce, describe, and discuss ideas
  6. Report: introduce, describe, discuss, review ideas
  7. Relate: setting, characters, actions, results, reactions

Research suggests that many students leave education without achieving levels 5-7, so simple language is needed—one idea per sentence with pauses between. Students complain that presentations are too fast because of difficulties coping with narrative reference, inference, coherence aspects, especially if not in their mother tongue (Sage, 2020).

2. Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is the ability to focus on yourself and how thoughts, emotions, and actions align with internal and external standards. If self-aware, you can objectively evaluate, manage emotions, and align communication behavior with values, situational requirements, competencies, and standards expected. Therefore, you can understand how others perceive you. A communication questionnaire can achieve this insight (Sage, 2000).

3. Audience Awareness

Knowing your audience (listeners or readers) helps determine what information to include in a presentation or document, as well as how to convey it effectively. You should consider the audience when selecting the tone, content, and language, or else the information may come over as unfocused or inappropriate. This communication aspect is often referred to as "emotional intelligence" but is an important component of the communicative process to indicate self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

4. Manner

A confident, friendly, affable manner is essential to show respect, non-judgment, equality, and integrity when dealing with people. Successful communicators require an open mind and commitment to understanding other people’s needs and viewpoints. If you disagree with your audience, it is important to reach a middle ground that everyone accepts. Trust is crucial.

5. Connection

Connection is made initially through phatic communication—the non-referential use of language to establish a mood of sociability and share feelings. This begins with a greeting and smile to establish enjoyment and enthusiasm for the message to be given. Research shows that if the connection is not made, the audience feels cheated and will fail to listen (Sage, 2020).

6. Structure

Formal communication needs a brief overview with an indication of the structure to follow. We all process information differently, top-down or bottom-up, with a 50% split in audiences (Wallach & Miller, 1988). Top-downers will only be able to grasp content with a clear outline, and bottom-uppers need detail and story anecdotes to process. We tend to produce information in the way we prefer, and Wallach & Miller’s research shows that students perform better with teachers having the same information processing style as themselves.

7. Verbal Ability

Verbal relates to spoken/written words not speaking (defined as "oral"). Competency means ability with words. Vocabulary knowledge is important as well as standard word forms if normally speaking a dialect. Organizing words into a sentence has many rules to convey meaning called grammar, as in noun and verb agreement.

Grammar elements are:

  • Sentence parts: subject, predicate, object, direct object (receives the action)
  • Morphology: word structure (prefixes, suffixes, plurals, etc.)
  • Phonology: word sounds
  • Semantics: word meanings and relationships, which vary according to context
  • Syntax (Greek—arrange together): sentence word structure

Syntax elements are:

  • Sentence parts: subject, predicate (modifies subject), object, direct object (receives the action of the verb)
  • Phrases: word group without subject or predicate
  • Clauses: word group with subject and verb
  • Sentence structure: simple, compound, complex, or compound-complex

Example: Mum went to the shop.

  • Grammar: Third-person singular noun (Mum) agrees with past-tense (went). The preposition (to) connects action to the definite article (the) and another noun (shop).
  • Syntax: Simple sentence of 1 independent subject. 1 subject (Mum) and 1 predicate (went to the shop), with 1 direct object (shop). Technology is changing grammar rules so beware!

8. Non-Verbal Ability

Mehrabian (1971) calculated that the total message impact owes 7% to words, 38% to voice, and 55% to gestures. Non-verbal input informs about a person’s feelings, intentions, motivations, and more. People speak with vocal organs but communicate with their bodies. Sage (2020), in a student survey, found voice tone was the top feature to assist lecture listening.

  • Listening: 4 types decide the listening goal—appreciative (enjoyment), empathetic (to show mutual concern), comprehensive (to achieve understanding), and critical (to evaluate). Note-taking aids attention, retention, and recall.
  • Body language: the way you situate your body in response to a situation (cross arms when defensive)
  • Movement: quick or slow moves, standing, sitting, or fidgeting convey different messages
  • Posture: the way you sit/stand conveys confidence, professionalism, and disposition to others
  • Gestures: vary across cultures so need to be considered carefully
  • Space: the distance between people also varies across cultures
  • Para-language: voice pitch, power, pace, and pause must show variety and passion
  • Facial expressions: mouth, eyes, eye-brows, and face muscles convey feeling and emotion
  • Eye contact: communicates interest and attention but varies across cultures
  • Touch: shows support or comfort but only use positively and if the receiver accepts this
  • Context: helps establish meaning and can influence what is said and how it is said

9. Feedback

This aspect is last but not least because unless feedback is given and accepted the communication is unlikely to be effective. In informal communication, this is easier to establish, but in a formal presentation has to be made explicit, with the speaker checking that they can be heard by everyone and the signal (e.g., waving hand) to indicate a need to stop for adjustments or comment, etc. Online presentations can do this through a chat facility.


Therefore, understanding how the communication process works and the competencies required is the first step toward planning the perfect online presentation. In Part 2, the three stages of creating the perfect performance are revealed.


  • Association of Project Management with YouGov Survey (2020) Salary and Market Trends, apm.org.uk
  • Mehrabian, A. (1971) Silent Messages. Belmont: California: Wadsworth
  • Sage, R. (2000) Class Talk: Successful Learning through Effective Communication. London: Bloomsbury
  • Sage, R. (2020) Speechless: Issues for Education. London: Legend Group
  • Sage, R. & Cwenar, S. (2012) A Communication Course for Teachers: Research on the Impact on Practice. IDIAL EU Project 2009-12.
  • Schaffhauser, D. (2020) Interactive, In-Class Engagement Makes a Difference to Students. The Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning