Chapter 1: What is Communication?

Learning Objectives

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

  • Describe at least three examples of technical communication and explain how they are transactional in nature.
  • Explain why miscommunication sometimes occurs in communication and how your own perceptual filters can be the cause.
  • Identify and apply two active listening strategies you can use in this course.

Key Terms and Concepts

  • Communication
  • Technical communication
  • Transactional communication
  • Active listening
Communication can be defined as “the process of one person stimulating meaning in the mind of another by means of a message (McCroskey, 2016, pp. 20-21).

Think about communication in your daily life. When you make a phone call, send a text message, or like something on social media, what is the purpose of that activity? Have you ever felt confused by what someone is telling you or argued over a misunderstood email? The underlying issue may very well be a communication deficiency.

There are many current models and theories that explain, plan, and predict communication processes and their successes or failures. In the workplace, we might be more concerned about practical knowledge and skills than theory. However, good practice is built on a solid foundation of understanding and skill. For this reason this textbook will help you develop foundational skills in key areas of communication, with a focus on applying theory and providing opportunities for practice.

Technical and Transactional Communication

Photo: Communicating complex ideas

What comes to mind when you hear the term technical communication? Perhaps you think of scientific reports, specifications, instructions, software documentation, or technical manuals. And you would be correct.

However, technical communication is so much more than that. Technical Writing is a genre of non-fiction writing that certainly encompasses all of the above examples, but it also includes writing produced in day-to-day business operations such as correspondence, proposals, internal communications, media releases, and many kinds of reports. It includes the communication of specialized technical information, whether relating to computers and scientific instruments or the intricacies of meditation. And because oral and visual presentations are such an important part of professional life, technical communication also encompasses these as well.

These are just some of the many types of technical communication you will encounter in your career. With that in mind, how much time do you predict you will devote to communicative tasks as a technical professional? Do you think it is more or less than problem solving?

In a recent presentation on the topic of Co-op Work Term Reports, the Engineering co-op coordinator for the University of Victoria presented the following statistics regarding the importance of communication skills in the professional world of engineering:

The Reality: Technical Writing and Communication

  • How graduate engineers spend their time:
    • 25-50% Problem solving of some kind
    • 50-75% Communicating (Writing and reading reports, letters, memos, proposals, presentations, discussions w/colleagues, managers, clients)
  • Performance evaluations and job advancement usually depend more on communications skills than on technical skills

(McConkey, 2017)

This data shows that engineers are spending at least half–if not more–of their time on communicative tasks instead of the technical problem solving that is more commonly associated with the field. The research also found that professionals who are more advanced in their careers, such as those in management positions, spend only 5-10% of their time engaged in problem solving of some kind and 90-95% of their time engaging in related communications tasks.

Similarly, in a recent survey of over 1000 professionals from various professions, over 70% of engineers and almost 50% of programmers rated the quality of their writing as either “very important” or “extremely important” to the performance of their jobs (Swarts et al., 2018). Clearly, as Hyman (2002) asserts in Fundamentals of Engineering Design, “the stereotype that engineering is for inarticulate nerds is way off base” (p. 42). Transactional model of communication is the exchange of messages between sender and receiver where each take turns to send or receive messages (Businesstopia, 2018)

So how are these technical professionals communicating? Is it one-sided where they just share the information they have with a client or colleague and then walk away?

No, of course not. In reality technical communication is transactional in nature: it entails a purposeful transaction between sender and receiver that provides specific information for practical and specific purposes (informing, instructing, persuading) and is usually geared towards the needs of a specific audience. Technical communicators produce a wide variety of documents and other products, such as:

  • Proposals and requests for proposals (RFPs)
  • Technical or research reports
  • Documentation records and product specifications
  • User guides (step-by-step instructions, procedures, manuals)
  • Online help, technical support
  • Reference information (encylopedia-style information)
  • Consumer literature (information for the public about regulations, safety issues, etc.)
  • Marketing literature (product specifications, brochures, promotional literature)
  • Technical journalism (found in trade magazines, media releases, etc.)

Thus, technical communication is a highly “designed” form of communication that requires practitioners to have a heightened awareness of the conventions (rules and expectations) and rhetorical situations (audience, purpose, context) in which they are communicating.

This textbook aims to provide you with that heightened awareness–that is, to introduce you to the basic conventions of technical communications, and to train you to take a rhetorical approach to communication tasks, to find the tools and methods that will work best to communicate your ideas to your target audience, and to achieve the desired results.

Communication Can Be Complicated

Clearly, getting your point across requires more than simply speaking in front of a crowd or writing words on a page. How we are understood is due to the context of the communication, along with the relational qualities of who we are communicating with. That context, however, will be different from situation to situation and– most importantly–from person to person.

Exercise: Interactive Video

In the TED Talk below, Hampsten (2016) describes why miscommunication occurs so frequently, and how we can minimize frustration while expressing ourselves better.

This video is the first of many interactive activities that you will encounter through out this textbook. It will stop at different points and give you questions to check your understanding through out. The activities are also bookmarked if you want to go back and try them again.

If the above activity does not work, here is a link to the original video:

Now that you’ve watched the video, answer the following questions:

Finally, reflect on the following questions:

  1. What are the perceptual filters that affect how you communicate? Can you identify at least three?
  2. How do these filters help or harm how you interpret communication?

Effective Listening Strategies in the Classroom

How will you navigate how you use communication in our course?

Getting the most out of class time involves active listening, which means more than simply hearing what your instructors say. It involves engaging with the speaker and the material you hear in an active way. To maximize the benefit you get from attending class, try to use the following active listening skills:

  • focus your full attention on the speaker
  • ask questions, either out loud or internally, in response to what is being said
  • paraphrase ideas in notes
  • listen without judgment
  • show empathy for the speaker

Restating what you hear is a powerful strategy for being an active listener, but it’s obviously impractical in a roomful of other students. That’s why taking notes is so important. Think of it as a “silent” way to restate what you’re taking in. Focus on capturing the key ideas and on paraphrasing what you hear (rather than writing things down verbatim). Putting ideas into your own words will deepen your understanding and strengthen your ability to recall the information later.

Preparing ahead of time will also make listening more useful and engaging. Do any assigned reading before coming to class, using effective reading strategies discussed elsewhere in this course.

Key Takeaways

  • Technical communication is more than just a written report or technical manual: it includes any communication on a specialized, technical topic.
  • Professionals in technical professions spend half, if not a majority, of their work time on communicative tasks such as writing reports and memos, giving presentations, and speaking with clients. 
  • These communicative tasks are transactional in nature, in that they are highly designed to create a purposeful exchange between the sender and receiver of a message.
  • Using active listening strategies will help you understand and get the most out of the content in this course.


Businesstopia. (2018, February 15). Transactional model of communication

Hampsten, K. (2016, Feb 26). How miscommunication happens (and how to avoid it). [YouTube].

Hyman, B. I. (2002). Chapter 2: Problem formulation. In Fundamentals of engineering design. Prentice Hall.

McConkey, S. (2017, March 17). Writing a term report [ENGR 120 Plenary Lecture]. University of Victoria.

McCroskey, J. C. (2016). An introduction to rhetorical communication: A western rhetorical perspective. Pearson Education.

Swarts, J., Pigg, S., Larsen, J., Helo Gonzalez, J., De Haas, R., & Wagner, E. (2018). Communication in the workplace: What can NC state students expect? Professional Writing Program, North Carolina State University.


This chapter is adapted from Technical Writing Essentials by Suzan Last (on BCcampus). It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

This chapter is also adapted from College Success by Jolene Carr (on Lumen Learning). It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Photo by Headway on Unsplash


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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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