Chapter 3: The Nine Axioms of Communication

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Distinguish between the Nine Axioms of Communication.
  • Apply each axiom to professional and personal situations and articulate how an axiom is—or is not—being used.
  • Explain how your personal footing and face can positively or negatively impact a given communication situation.

Key Terms and Concepts

  • axiom
  • footing
  • credibility
  • face
  • face loss
  • ambiguity

What are the Nine Axioms of Communication?

All of us have received a message, either in text or spoken form, that either made 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?

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.

Here are all Nine Axioms listed out.

The Nine Axioms of Communication

  1. Communication is not simply an exchange of information, but an interaction between people.
  2. All communication involves an element of relation as well as content.
  3. Communication takes place within a context of ‘persons, objects, events, and relations’.
  4. Communication is the principal way by which we establish ourselves and maintain credibility.
  5. Communication is the main means through which we exert influence.
  6. All communication involves an element of interpersonal risk.
  7. Communication is frequently ambiguous: what is unsaid can be as important as what is said.
  8. Effective communication is audience-centred, not self-centred.
  9. Communication is pervasive: you cannot not communicate

(MacLennan, 2009)

Most importantly, 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.

We will now go over each of these axioms in detail. After each one, you will have an opportunity to apply your understanding to personal experiences and real world scenarios.

The Axioms, in general

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.

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 indeed impair your ability to communicate effectively.

Axiom 1

“Communication is not simply an exchange of information, but an interaction between people” (MacLennan, 2009, p. 9).

Every time we communicate there is a personal dimension, a personal impact. We must always think about who is going to be reading our email, letter, or report, who is going to listen to our presentation. Understanding that communication involves interaction really forces us to be conscious of the personal dimension whenever we communicate, and to remember that communication is a complicated, dynamic process, and not a simple transfer of data from one individual to another.

To be a good technical communicator, you should always try to include a personal connection. You do not need to sound like a robot. You can still share elements of your personality and show the person on the other end of your communication that you recognize their shared humanity.

When we communicate, it’s not just the facts that matter. What matters most is how we communicate those facts and how the audience might receive those facts. Regardless of the result of that communication (whether it is positive or negative), an interaction always happens.

Reflection Questions

Read the scenarios below. How would these situations make you feel? How is the first axiom at play in these interactions?

  1. You are using a dating app and someone messages you with the word “hey.” Several minutes pass and they say nothing else. 
  2. You are at work trying to finish a project when a co-worker comes up to and immediately asks you to do something for them without even saying hello.
  3. A supervisor asks you to put together a graph for a report as soon as possible. Even though you are in the middle of something else, you stop what you are doing, make the graph, and send it off to them. The supervisor does not thank you or even acknowledge that they received the graph.

Axiom 2

“All communication involves an element of relation as well as content” (MacLennan, 2009, p. 10).

When we think about relation or relationships in communication, we are not thinking in terms of romance, but we are considering the role of connection. Ultimately, our connection with an audience should influence how we communicate our ideas.

There are three ways that relation comes into play when we communicate:

  1. Establishing a relationship: You are connecting with someone for the first time and introducing yourself because you’ve never met before.
  2. Maintaining a relationship: You will make conscious choices about what you say and how you say it to ensure a relationship keeps going into the future.
  3. Harming a relationship: This obviously causes negative repercussions. As a technical communicator, we want to try to minimize this as much as possible, even when it’s unavoidable.

Here’s an example. The first time you hand-in assignment to a professor, whether its this class or any other, you are developing the relationship you have with your professor. This goes both ways since how your professor responds to your work will also establish, maintain, or harm your relationship with them.

For example, let’s say you receive your first assignment back from a professor and you get a bad grade. How your professor explains why you got a bad grade will impact your relationship with them. The professor may harm your relationship with them if they only give you negative feedback, or even no feedback at all. As a result, you may feel dejected and not capable in the class.

Unfortunately for the professor, it’s their job to provide negative feedback on student assignments so this is always a risk for them. However, in order to mitigate the potential harm, a good professor will also try to suggest ways you can revise their work to make it stronger. In this way, a professor can manage a potentially negative interaction without harming their relationship with students.

A concept that will directly impact your relationship with someone is your footing, which is the “foundation up on which your credibility rests in a given interaction” (MacLennan, 2009, p. 10). Here’s an example. Who would you prefer to receive feedback on technical writing from, an RCM 200 professor or your friend who is unemployed and plays video games all day? You may certainly value your friend, but the professor clearly has more credibility than they do.

Ultimately, footing is about having an awareness of who you are and what your position is in any communication situation. It’s also about appropriateness. If you can recognize your footing, and you can respond appropriately, you will be more successful.

In order to determine whether the footing we’ve adopted is appropriate, we need to consider:

  1. whether we have the proper credentials
  2. whether our footing corresponds to our role in the situation
  3. and whether our audience grants it.

It’s important to keep in the mind that if you only meet one of the above considerations, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have footing in a given situation. For example, we may have the proper credentials—such as a degree or professional experience—that allow us to speak on a topic, but it may not be appropriate for us to do so. There are situations that call upon each of us in particular to draw upon our expertise, and there are situations in which it is more appropriate for us to refrain from using our expertise, or to allow someone else with similar expertise to comment. Similarly, if an audience doesn’t recognize our adopted footing as appropriate, we simply don’t have the footing to make the comments we’re making.

One way to check your footing is to ask yourself:

“What right do I have to say what I want to say?”

If you have that authority that you feel you have, if the situation is appropriate, and if your audience also recognizes, then you can probably say what you want to say. However, if you don’t have authority, or your footing is not appropriate to your role in the situation, or your audience doesn’t recognize your authority, and you go through with that communication, you risk harming your credibility.

Reflection Questions

  1. Below are three scenarios. Using the three criteria discussed above, consider your footing in each one. After that, consider what specific factors might help you establish your footing in each scenario.
    • discussing with friends an increase of the minimum wage to $15 an hour
    • applying for a management-level position in your field
    • joining a student committee to make recommendations on tuition costs
  2. Recall a time when you harmed your relation with someone due to some poor communication choices. What went wrong and how could it have been done differently?

Axiom 3

“All communication takes place within a context of ‘persons, objects, events, and relations’” (MacLennan, 2009, p. 11).

This axiom reminds us that all communication takes place within a context of a particular situation.

Communication is situational. Whenever we wish to understand a message properly, we need to examine the context in which it was expressed. For instance, we might consider:

  • who the intended audience was
  • what the audience’s relationship to the speaker was
  • where and through what medium the message was transmitted
  • why the message was created.

When taken out of context, a message can be misunderstood or even manipulated. Additionally, when we are designing a message, we must be mindful of the fact that there is not one approach to solving all communication situations; the situation must have an impact on how we decide to design our response to it.

We need to develop our judgement of how to respond to a situation properly. As a result, this course has been designed to help you better understand how to look at a communication situation—what questions to ask about the situation, what elements of the situation to assess—so that you can have the maximum amount of information available to you when you begin to design a message to solve it.

What are some general elements of a communication situation that we need to think about? You may recall that Bitzer (2009) tells us that we need to think about the exigence, that is, the problem we’re trying to solve through persuasion; the audience, paying particular attention to what they know, what they value, and how they feel about the topic; and the constraints, including, of course, your footing. In short, this axiom tells us that we need to do our research very carefully before we develop a message.

Reflection Questions

Watch the video below. For both cases mentioned, use the four considerations to think about where the miscommunication occurs for the both the sender and receiver.

Link to Original Video:

Axiom 4

“Communication is a principal way of establishing ourselves and maintaining credibility” (MacLennan, 2009, p. 12).

Most of you are in school because you want to become a member of a profession such as an engineer, agrologist, agronomist, maybe a veterinarian or a physician, or perhaps you intend to stay in school and become a professor.

Whatever profession you choose, you are going to have some credibility simply because you are a member of that profession, and have thus managed to complete all the education that is required to join the profession. However, your success and your reputation in that profession will be based on what you do with that education.

As a professional, you will regularly engage in communication as an action. Since we establish our credibility through our actions, and since communication is the action that underlies all other activities we engage in as professionals, effective professional communication is crucial for establishing our credibility. Since colleagues and clients see us engage in communication more than anything else, and since we are being judged on our communication, it is important that we make our communication as effective as possible.

All your knowledge, everything you are gaining through your education, is not very useful if you cannot communicate it to people. They won’t understand that you have that knowledge, or they may not believe that your knowledge is accurate or applicable. Thus, you need to establish your credibility before you can use what you know.

Reflection Question

Once you leave school, how will you establish credibility in your field? If communication is an action, what actions will you need to take? Are they any common mistakes people make in your field that you will need to avoid?

Axiom 5

“Communication is the main means through which we exert influence” (MacLennan, 2009, p. 13).

Think of what you want in the world. What do you want, beyond your degree? A career? A certain level of income? To get married? Much of what you want to achieve comes through successfully influencing others, and the way in which you communicate plays a key role in this process. You’re going to earn your degree if you can convince your professors that you know everything you need to know. Once you get your degree, you may need to convince an employer to hire you, through a job package and job interview.  Perhaps you will start your own company, and then you will use your communication to raise funds and then recruit the best possible employees, as well as loyal clients. All of these achievements come not only through your hard work, but also through your persuasive skills.

You are going to be an educated, engaged citizen, so you’ll need to have excellent communication skills in order to share your skills, your knowledge, and your perspective on the world.

Reflection Questions

As MacLennan (2009) makes clear, influence is not all about getting other people to do things for you. It’s about how influence can be used to achieve a mutually beneficial result.

From a global perspective, consider the work of Peruvian singer Renata Flores. When she was 14, Ms. Flores translated the song “The Way You Make Me Feel” by Michael Jackson into Quechua, her Indigenous language which is also the language of the Incas. The video explains her music as well as it’s impact. As you watch it, consider how she used the influence of a popular song and social media to promote engagement with and interest in the Quechua language.

Link to Original Video:

Now lets consider this axiom from a professional context.

Imagine you are a team leader for a project. In this role, you are in charge of directing the project, but also addressing any challenges your team faces. Below are two scenarios with two challenges you may encounter in such a role.

How might you use your influence as a team lead in order to encourage better cooperation amongst your team members?

Scenario 1: Your team is feeling frustrated. Everybody is working on their own individual part and nobody understands how their portion will impact the larger project. As a result, the team has lost time by making several mistakes that need to be fixed. While such mistakes could have been avoided by better communication within the group, everyone is protective of their progress, and shares only what has been completed.

Scenario 2: Your team has been making a lot of progress on the project, but is not going to meet the deadline. Your supervisor decides to give you another team member, David, to help you out. Your supervisor arranges a meeting in which David introduces himself,  but nobody on the team wants his help. In private, individual members admit they’re not sure how David can help them. Additionally, several of your team members tell you that they’re worried that David will take all the credit for doing only a little bit of work.

Axiom 6

“All communication involves an element of interpersonal risk” (MacLennan, 2009, p. 14).

Since all communication involves relation, then relation is at risk whenever you are communicating. Furthermore, your credibility, your influence, and your footing are also at risk whenever you communicate. If you communicate poorly, then you risk damaging these crucial elements of effective communication, so it’s important that reflect carefully on how to communicate most effectively in every situation.

Face is also at risk. Face is who we want the world to perceive us as, how we want to present ourselves to the world. If the world affirms that self-image, we are able see ourselves in the way we want to be seen.

In fact, for most of us, the face we project to the world is more competent than we actually feel. We want to appear that we have everything under control, even though it is perfectly normal not to feel that way internally, at least not all the time. We may not feel terribly self-confident, but we don’t want to show that anxiety about our performance to the world; we want the world to see us as confident and competent.

Fortunately, the world will affirm our desired self-image. We generally accept people as they present themselves, since doing so is part of the process of building community.

Nevertheless, we risk our face when we are communicating because, when we are presenting ourselves and our ideas, we risk being judged, and there is the possibility that others will not perceive us in the way we wish to be perceived.

As a result we experience face loss. If you feel nervous about participating in discussions or giving speeches in this course, it is because of the fear of face loss, or face challenge. However, always remember that your audience is also invested in helping you maintain your projected sense of self—no one wants to see you lose face, since such an occurrence would make everyone uncomfortable, as if each person in the audience had also lost face with you.

It is important that we recognize face risk because we may someday have to issue a face challenge to somebody. For instance, we may have to design a message that corrects somebody’s behaviour in a workplace. Employees usually prefer a boss to think of their work as excellent, so when a boss criticizes their work, they may experience embarrassment or humiliation. Such feelings often cause people to act defensively—employees may look for reasons that they’re wrong, instead of accepting the feedback. Because our sense of face exists in all interactions, we need to carefully consider the face implications whenever we are communicating with someone.

Reflection Questions

Below are three scenarios that may happen to you in the workplace. How might your face be affected in each?

  • Scenario 1: As you know by now, not all communication is verbal. Let’s say you are working in an open-office space like the one pictured on the right. You have been working for several hours on your computer and decide to take a break. You decide to check social media at your desk, and while you do that, a supervisor quickly walks behind you on their way to a meeting and sees that you are not working. The supervisor doesn’t know you are on a break, and they do not stop to ask what you are doing.
  • Scenario 2: Something always seems to make you late. At least once a week, you miss your bus and show up 15 to 30 minutes late to work. You also easily lose track of time because you are focused on work, so you often to show up to meetings a minute or two late and disrupt them.
  • Scenario 3: Right now, you are working on three different projects and nothing is going right. You are frustrated and you are happy to let everyone who will listen know it. You complain at your desk, at your coworkers’ desks, and even in the breakroom. Your coworkers try to offer some solutions, but you do not listen them. Instead, you blow off their ideas by saying, “Yeah, maybe. I’ll think about it.”

Axiom 7

“Communication is frequently ambiguous: what is unsaid can be as important as what is said” (MacLennan, 2009, p. 14).

This axiom helps us better understand how to interpret messages that others send to us, and design our messages more consciously. It reminds us that communication is complex, and that there is often much more at work than its verbal content.

Ambiguous communication can complicate a message in a couple of different ways. First, unstated assumptions can create ambiguity. If we, either intentionally or unintentionally, do not share information that is required to help our audience understand our message, we are responsible for miscommunication. Also, non-verbal cues, such as body language and other sources of accidental communication, can also damage the clarity of a message.

Sometimes, such accidental communication can betray the true purpose of a message, and, sometimes, the information sent by the accidental communication may be completely unrelated to the message a speaker is communicating; either way, an audience should not be left to try to decipher the ultimate meaning of the message.

Thus, we must aim to have a clear understanding of all of the ways our message can be interpreted by an audience, and to be in control of how it could be perceived. Designing our messages with care enables us to be responsible and accountable for any sort of assumption that could embedded in our communication.

Communication is full of spaces, through which our audience can perceive us one way or another, so it’s up to us to ensure that our audience understands what we want to say, and not to misunderstand us. Whenever we communicate, we must do our best to make conscious choices.

Reflection Questions

One form that ambiguity can take is lexcial ambiguity. This occurs when certain words take on multiple parts of speech. That is, depending on context, the same word could be a noun, verb, or adjective. Take the sentence below for example:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Believe it or not, that is a grammatically correct sentence. How is that possible? It is because of lexical ambiguity. Check out the video below for more detail.

Link to Original Video:

Lexical ambiguity is just one way you may see ambiguity in your career. Sure, a piece of writing may make sense grammatically, but that doesn’t mean it’s good writing. Can you think of writing you’ve seen where you weren’t clear what was being said?

Let’s look at ambiguity more generally with some real world situations. Below are three scenarios where ambiguity occurs. Where does the ambiguity come from and how could the situation be made less ambiguous?

  • Scenario #1: You are working on a group project with three other people. Each person decides to be responsible for a different section, and you decide to do the final portion. However, your part is dependent on the work of everyone else and you can’t start until they are done. The deadline is coming up soon and the rest of your group still isn’t finished. You have other projects to worry about, so you ask them when they will be done. Their response is, “we’ll get it to you soon.”
  • Scenario #2: Your employer sends a company wide email that states,  “There are big changes coming in the next couple of weeks. We have decided to restructure our workforce so we can put our company on a stronger path to grow. Our management team has been working around the clock to change how we do business and we know each of you will be a big part of those changes. It will be a difficult transition, but we will only succeed if we keep our heads down and focus on the big picture.”
  • Scenario #3: You receive an assignment back from an instructor with a bad mark on it. You read over the instructor’s comments and see comments such as “not clear enough,” “this graphic is confusing,” and “be more specific.”

Axiom 8

Effective communication is audience-centred, not self-centred (MacLennan, 2009, p. 15).

While MacLennan phrases this axiom differently, a re-phrasing can help prevent any potential confusion: if you want your message to be received and acted upon, you’re going to have to think carefully about your audience.

Recall that a pathos appeal, when used appropriately, can improve the connection of the person who’s speaking with the person who’s listening. The better we can engage our audience, the more likely our communication will be successful. Understanding our audience means considering how much they already know about your topic, how they might react to your message, and what would best motivate them to accept your message. Answering all of these questions is crucial in order to improve the design of your message.

Being audience-centred means having a good understanding of what the audience’s expectations are. Whenever you do an assignment for RCM 200, for example, you’ll need to first consider what your audience is expecting; that is, what are the standards and requirements that your instructor expects you to meet? The more you’re able to adhere to those expectations, the more likely it is that you’ll be successful.

Reflection Question

For an example of audience-centered messaging, look no further than the University of Saskatchewan’s very own College of Engineering.

In 2020, the college unveiled it’s re-designed first-year engineering program called Re-Engineered. The college promised that the new program was not only innovative, but would also be more accessible and supportive of first year students. But what did that mean? How would this program be different from other first-year engineering programs across Canada?

The College released the following video to help answer those questions. As you watch it, how does the speaker try to make connections with the audience? How is pathos used to show the speaker cares about the audience’s interest? How is the speaker trying to get you to accept her message?

Link to the Original Video:

Axiom 9

“Communication is pervasive: you cannot not communicate” (MacLennan, 2009, p. 16).

Notice the word “pervasive”—it is not “persuasive.” Communication is all around us, saturating everything. It is unavoidable. Once we open up the door to communication, once we start engaging someone, once we’ve established relation, we cannot choose to turn it off. This is because literally everything we do within that dynamic will be read as some type of message.

Think of the times when you have been upset with someone not communicating—chances are, you were upset because you were interpreting their silence, since silence can also be an act of communication. Think of the times you’ve messaged someone. You could see the moment someone read the message, but they didn’t respond. If you were expecting some sort of response, wouldn’t you assume they were saying something, by not saying something? What about those times you had interviewed for a job, and you waited anxiously to hear whether you got it. If they didn’t call, were they still sending you a message?

We need to recognize that once we enter a dynamic in which we are communicating with someone in any capacity, all our words, all our actions, all our silences, will be read as a message. Since there is no possibility under such circumstances for non-communication, we should always attempt to be in control of our messages, by making choices that lead to the impact and influence that we hope to achieve as professionals.

Key Takeaways

  • The Nine Axioms of Communication are universal, interconnected principles of communication that are present whenever we try to communicate with others.
  • How we create relation with our audience — whether we are establishing, maintaining, or harming a connection — can have long lasting impact on that relationship.
  • Our connection will also be impacted by our footing, credibility, and face . Therefore, it is important that we consider these elements in mind when communicating.
  • Ambiguity can also complicate a message. Whether intentional or not, leaving information out can result in miscommunication.
  • By crafting messages that are audience-centred, we are more likely to be successful in our communication.


Bitzer, L. F. (2009). The rhetorical situation. In J. MacLennan, Effective communication for the technical professions (2nd ed.) (pp.18-21). Oxford University Press. (Abridged from Bitzer, L.F. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1(1), 1-14.)

MacLennan, J. (2009). Effective communication for the technical professions (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.




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Effective Professional Communication: A Rhetorical Approach Copyright © 2021 by Rebekah Bennetch; Corey Owen; and Zachary Keesey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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