Previously, I introduced you to the concept of modes and multimodality. In this article, I want to develop these ideas to focus more explicitly on communicating through digital media. I am primarily thinking about this within the context of Christian mission and ministry, but these principles are not distinctively Christian. They apply to any kind of digital media communication – for a business as much as within a church.
The two factors which shape our messages
As I wrote in the previous article, the very simple model of communication is inadequate. It assumes that the conversation partners hear everything clearly and understood each other perfectly. This is far from the truth, as is clear within a social semiotic theory of communication.
It seems that the common idea of communications, at least in many churches, is:
- there exists a message which it is our task to communicate (and we know exactly what that message is)
- there's an audience out there which needs the message
- so we need to use some kind of technology to get our message to those people
The assumption here is that, if we have done this, we have succeeded in communicating. That is simply not good enough.
First, this ignores how the message we intend to communicate is not simply an objective entity – a 'thing' which is entirely external to us. We bring something of ourselves to any message we communicate, not least because it is always the result of us encountering prior prompts and interpreting them. What we shape into our message is our perspective on the subject, and that depends on our interests, knowledge, cultural context, and much else. Even the question of what we choose to communicate is rooted deep in our interests.
Second, however we communicate our message, we cannot assume that everybody has seen, read or heard it, never mind understood it. As we saw in the previous article,
- communication happens in response to a prompt, but the prompt can be ignored by a potential recipient
- communication happens when there is an interpretation (by the recipient), but the interpretation may not be in line with what the initiator of the communication intends
So the two factors which shape all our communications are:
- our interests: the ideas we want to communicate, our understanding of those ideas, and our preferred design approaches and technologies
- our understanding of the audience: their interests, prior knowledge, and preferred design approaches and technologies
Of course, we never understand the audience fully. We think we know our audience, but often make huge assumptions about who is reading or watching our material. We tend to think of our audiences too generally. We are rarely specific enough in our thinking, so we end up not targetting our message very well. A scattershot approach of trying to communicate to everybody doesn't connect well with anybody. A targetted communication to a well-understood target audience will connect well with them, but can also connect with others outside of the target group. Having constructed a message based on our interests and our understanding of the audience, we have more chance of capturing the recipient's attention and their engagement.
Four key aspects of digital communication: the CAST model
The model of communication I have developed1 has four key aspects, which help us to reflect on important stages of the communication process. I call this the CAST model of communication: Concept, Audience, Shaping, Transmission.
Before we ever start constructing the message, we have a concept. Where does this concept come from?
The initiator of the communication sets the ground (provides a prompt) for the recipient to do some interpretive work, but the initiator is not creating a message ex nihilism – from nowhere. We do not come up with ideas in a vacuum. The ideas have come from somewhere. The initiator acts in response to things he or she has already encountered – a prior prompt: something she has read or seen, or which came up in a conversation, or in her reflections on scripture. The initiator will have done interpretive work on this prior prompt.
This article, for example, does not pop out of nothing in my mind. It results from my previous reading of books on communication theory, my experience of communications, and my reflection on both theory and practice. I was the recipient of prior prompts provided by many writers and have done interpretive work on them. I eventually took the results of my interpretive work and fashioned them into a new sign complex (a set of signs – this article and the accompanying images) which points to the meaning I want to articulate. I have then offered to new recipients (you, the readers) as a prompt for your attention and engagement. I have set the ground for your interpretive work.
We encounter and respond to prior prompts and interpret them. We develop these in our minds into a new concept – based on our interests, as we saw above – which we want to communicate to others. Then we shape that concept into a message. But if we launch straight into shaping the message, we are likely to ignore the second factor mentioned above and not give sufficient thought to the people to whom we are communicating. So the second aspect to consider is not the shaping of the message, but the audience.
I will look at this, and the other two aspects of the CAST model in the next article.