Reign Of Error, Reign Of Terror: Part 1

Communicating In An Age Of Increasing Technology
Summary: This two-part article assembles evidence to suggest that recent world changes, particularly in technology, have altered the way we communicate. This has positive effects for greater connectivity but negative ones for communication aspects which can cost lives. Part 1 looks at this background.

What Needs More Attention In Using Technology

This article assembles evidence to suggest that recent world changes, particularly in technology, have altered the way we communicate. This has positive effects for greater connectivity but negative ones for aspects of communicative behavior. Communication blunders cost lives producing a "reign of error." Less respect for people seen in cyber and real forms of bullying creates a "reign of terror." The pandemic has highlighted difficulties in dealing with large sequences of talk or text as people have been thrust into online experiences without face-to-face support needed for them to be successful. Greater awareness and knowledge of communication processing, production, and performance elements leads to improved interactions and behaviors as the key to reducing error and terror that ruins lives.


In a terrifying way, the COVID-19 2020 pandemic has revealed limitations in knowledge application that clinicians, educators, scientists, and government ministers are facing in publicly communicating and managing this cruel illness. For those who have received training in evidence-based methods to communicate, these situations are common. Delivering important information and giving clear instructions, without engendering apprehension, uncertainty, and fear, require skill not only in providing understandable content but also in presentation dynamics. For those prepared with a thorough understanding of communicating processes, production, performances, and principles, with a flexible range of competencies, their know-how is helping them to adapt, innovate, and avoid misspeak (Back et al, 2020, Merrill, 2020). Speech and language pathologists have played an important role in the pandemic, passing on their expertise in this domain, according to Health Service colleagues.

Speaking is our primary representational system and required at narrative levels for processing and producing information accurately. Reduced human interaction from continuing coronavirus threats is affecting communication competence according to sources (Sage and Matteucci, 2020). Communication problems are always with us as words are so easily misconstrued. Speech and language studies (Sage, 1996) found that misdiagnosis of human disorders was due to ineffective human communication between patient and doctor as well as medical professionals themselves. Gaining and explaining information requires expert teaching for listening, talking, understanding, thinking, problem-solving, effective judgment, and decision-making, so needing attention in learning.

Gawande (2011), a surgeon, says around 50% of British patients receive inappropriate management because of scientific complexity and a struggle to process because knowledge is not properly understood or correctly applied. Communication blunders account for £220 million medication claims alone over the last 15 years, estimated to have killed 22,000 UK patients annually. Pay-outs have doubled since 2014, indicating the importance of prioritizing spoken communication in education and training (Statistics-NHS England). This surely reflects a reign of error which the pandemic situation has highlighted.

Problems Of Communicating In An Age Of Increasing Technology

Sending information in the way we might do face to face does not work for communications via technology, which has vastly increased during the pandemic. Our greater use of machine devices to communicate requires a different transmission style to ensure effectiveness. Information should be delivered in small chunks with more time to process outputs. Online performances must be modified to be effective, as they rely on auditory and visual material, excluding haptic* (touch, feeling, position in space/context) and non-verbal dimensions necessary for those learning best from real experience (Sage & Matteucci, 2020). This is vital for people with subtle communication issues, like being exposed to communication different from their mother-tongue, so finding nuanced information confusing. Fisher and Adams (1994) reported studies showing that 75% of people struggle with listening, understanding, and recall of information. More diversity in 21st-century societies makes this a greater issue today. It is estimated that we need 15% of brain capacity to process language which leaves 85% free to day-dream. We only attend to 20% of what we hear, with 20% of the time preoccupied with erotic thoughts (Goldhaber, 1970). Who is admitting to these?

Thus, the pandemic highlights communication difficulties from reduced sensory input. It is important to analyze issues—like the ability to introspectively analyze(literature terms: inner talk/speech, self-talk, sub-vocal speech, mental verbalization, internal dialogue/monologue, or self-statement). Alongside inner-talk are external language dialogues and monologues (telling/re-telling, giving instructions, reporting, making an argument, etc.). The importance of inner-talk is rarely recognized, but Vygotsky (1934/1986) suggested it depends on sequential language, vital for processing, production, predictive thinking, and action. If people have problems with inner-talk, they need an approach accounting for time and content factors (the topic route with staged summaries) as well as psychological factors that are barriers to attention (Sage, 2000, 2020). Articulating each step while doing it, repeating, recalling, and stating the whole sequence is necessary to build mental verbalization and understanding.

Hurlbert (2011) has made inner-talk a focus for study and found only an average 20% frequency of use. External talk is necessary for developing internal self-statements. Is low inner-talk frequency a result of technology as the preferred way of communicating? In countries, like Italy, Japan, and Cuba, talk is the technology of learning and you do not find silent classrooms, as students constantly verbalize to develop higher speaking and thinking levels. Group work is more common than individual, so participants constantly exchange ideas, reflect, review, and refine performances. With students 4 years above UK counterparts in the Dialogue, Innovation, Achievement, and Learning studies (DIAL, Sage, Rogers & Cwenar, 2002-10), one takes their approach seriously, as communication and relationships take precedence over subject learning. In Italy, the Roman tradition of Oratory and Rhetoric Schools is still seen today, with oral examinations important for judging performance, so reflecting speaking and listening use in normal life, seen in the table below.

A Comparison Of Teaching Time For Spoken And Written Development (Steil 1991)

  • Listening 60%: learned 1st—used most, taught least
  • Speaking 20%:learned 2nd—used next to most, taught next to least
  • Reading 12%: learned 3rd—used next to least, taught next to most
  • Writing 8%: learned 4th—used least, taught most

*(Percentage use in life )

One can easily see that primary language competencies get less attention than secondary ones in education, which have life consequences. Experts suggest this analysis has not changed in the last 30 years (Sage, 2020).

Organizing Strategies For Information

In order to present information effectively, consider Miller’s (1984) puzzle, which is of a picture of a cowboy on a horse but the outlines are missing so it presents as a series of different shaped blobs.

In discovering what the figure represents, we engage in our preferred goodness-of-fit analysis. Some people attempt to find an outline for achieving the big picture, searching for an overall form as a guide to insert detail. Miller calls this the "top-down" process—wanting to find the general pattern (gestalt) before moving to component parts. This outline might suggest arms, legs, face, eyes, and other body parts. This is analogous to deductive thinking when a hypothesis infers specific outcomes on the basis of a general principle. However, other people favor starting with details in order to achieve the big picture. This is "bottom-up," data-driven processing (Miller, 1984). These learners like details to fall into place before deciding a good fit at a more general level. Thus, they might find an animal’s leg as a part and hint of a foot, leading to a search on a more general level for the rest of the animal. Bottom-up processing corresponds to inductive reasoning and involves accumulating examples until a goodness-of-fit analysis draws a general conclusion from detail. Have you solved the puzzle of a cowboy on a horse? Can you see it?

Although, having a preferred style we need to use both for many tasks. Take reading, we must get the gist of the content and focus on detail for synthesizing phonemes into whole words for coping with the text. The communication issue is that we produce information in our preferred style. A top-down processor gives an overview and the structure of their presentation, with a final review of main points. A bottom-up processor moves straight into the content and uses personal stories and experiences along the way to illustrate points. The distribution of styles is about 50-50 among the population.

 I shall never forget a post-graduate lecture by a famous neurologist, who had moved into the art world. He bounced into the theatre, sat on the edge of the stage and told his life-story. Afterward, half the audience said how marvelous he was and the other half ruminated that they really did not grasp the content! The moral is that we need to acknowledge both thinking styles, by giving a concise overview and clear structure but supporting data with real stories and experience. Wallach and Miller (1988) found that students did well with teachers who had the same processing style as themselves. We all have experienced presentations that suited us and others that have been difficult to fathom. The thinking-style behind the performance may have contributed to this reaction.

Core Principles When Communicating Information

There are core principles to observe when imparting information for whatever purpose:

  • Smile and make audience eye contact, connecting with a brief, friendly comment before conveying important information. This phatic* (social) part of the exchange is vital to engage those receiving spoken/written messages. If appropriate, make this amusing, as a good joke reduces difficult concepts down to size and shakes off fear! In our dash for facts, we forget to make this vital connection.
  • Be aware of the feelings and emotions of those receiving information. This is vital and influences how messages are received and interpreted.
  • Deliver information in small chunks. We only have the capacity to listen for about 3 minutes and need a breather to absorb material (Sage, 2000). A pause, question, or comment, is an effective break-up strategy. Long, technical narratives mean listeners lose the thread and miss points.
  •  Divide information with a memorable headline for each new part. After each one, ask listeners to paraphrase (What have I just said?). Pause and summarize the main ideas.
  • Top-down processors need an overview, structure, and review but stories of real experiences help bottom-up processors to engage with content
  • Deliver content with a lively voice. 300+ students listed and ranked what helped them attend lectures. 97% said voice tone was the top essential for listening. If information is delivered with passion and voice variation, this sustains attention (Sage, 2020).

Part 1 Summary

Part 1 outlines some of the problems that people have when using technology. This is partly due to the fact that screen-based content removes the real context and the spatial and kinaesthetic aspects which are important in establishing meaning. Ways to deliver content that takes account of different information processing styles are suggested. Part 2 of the article considers how the pandemic has changed things and focused on communicative issues in learning and teaching.

Phatics denotes speech used to express or create an atmosphere of shared feelings, goodwill, or sociability rather than to impart specific information.


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