A Map of Communication

Communication is a somewhat-teachable subject. It isn’t as efficiently teachable as say, mathematics. But it is not as unteachable as say, “relationships.” Beyond the basics, there are things that you can say about it. They aren’t well-organized sorts of things, but there is some coherence. Here is a map of the parts of the territory that I’ve traversed (or at least viewed from a distance).

Map of Communication

Traveling the Map

Like you, I don’t exactly remember how I landed on the beach of literacy, or how I managed to scale the cliffs of grammar. I spent some time playing in the garden of high-school debate and the fields of teen writing. But those are areas everyone knows well. Further south, things get interesting, and only a small fraction of the population has ventured there.

You’ve probably met people who’ve gotten lost in the swamp of self-indulgent bad journaling, or people getting sucked into competitive quicksand. Beyond are the skilled people who choose not to think about communication anymore, but just exploit their talent. They settle down in the City of Media (which includes suburbs of advertising, journalism, screen-writing and so forth). Some turn their attention to climbing the mountains of law or politics. Occasionally, some highly-skilled practitioners burn out and retreat to the temple of rhetoric, where the teach, rather than do.

But some people tire of just honing, exercising and teaching their skills, and feel an urge to travel deeper inland. Some choose one of the well-traveled highways that goes deeper — towards form, content or intention.

  • If you go towards form, you may end up not caring about what you communicate at all, so long as the are able to cultivate your sense of verbal precision. I think of James Joyce and David Foster Wallace as belonging in this group. Pushing the boundaries of expressivity becomes your calling.
  • Or you may travel towards content, where language turns transparent and eventually disappears. Here you find Dickens, Mark Twain, Edward Gibbon. On this road, the complexity of what you want to say may overwhelm your ability to say it, something that happened to Hegel. If you go too far, you may leave cross another ocean and end up on the continent of the humanities, where you lose yourself in history and culture. On this road too, you will find metaphor, narrative and Lakoff.
  • Traveling towards intention leads to the subtle and private pleasures of one-on-one influence, persuasion and occasionally, manipulation. Along this road, you’ll meet sophisticated managers or socialites; the Machiavellis, Rasputins and Kissingers. Traveling far enough leads to the lands of psychology and sociology.

I haven’t seen far enough to understand whether these three directions on the highways eventually converge or diverge. The existence of Shakespeare makes me suspect that at least, form and content do converge if you go far enough. The road to intention though, probably does not. I mean here intentions about what is heard, not about what is said. The former inevitably involves your listeners or interlocutors. Intention in communication gets more sophisticated as the audience shrinks, and as the communication goes from one-way to two-way, while form and content get more sophisticated with larger, more silent audiences. Sure, reading books like Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (thanks for the recommendation NK!) reveals that authors worry a great deal about the say-intention of every comma. But even Shakespeare could at best, target his hear-intentions towards perhaps one muse or one archetype of a larger audience. It is when there is a single person sitting across from you, and talking back that the role of intention in communication is revealed in all its rich complexity. Intention is important up to perhaps audiences of a hundred or two.

But it is perhaps the deep south that is the most interesting. Past the highway, you come to the untamed wild: Thinker’s National Park. Perhaps there are many trails, but I’ve only mapped three — the trails of philosophy, mathematics and beauty. The philosophy trail starts with Wittgenstein and goes so deep I haven’t even glimpsed the hint of an end to that trail. The mathematics (or mathematics/computation) trail starts with Chomsky of course, and into information theory, Kolmogorov complexity and eventually perhaps, to physics. The trail of beauty is the most mysterious to me. I have seen evidence that it exists, but I haven’t yet found the trailhead from which to launch an exploration.
I think I might be just near the highway intersection of this map, wondering whether to go towards the wild, get on the highway, or go back to town and settle down. Given the aspects of communication that intrigue me the most, I suspect I might travel west towards intention, after spending some time in the national park.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. What a profoundly vivid image you have generated in my mind’s eye with this idea. I very much like the map you have provided, too. Admittedly I am one who scans the images of a document prior to reading the text because I feel much better oriented with the material through doing so. This seems to assist me with comprehension and retention of what I read.

    Anyway, the point was that I really felt at home with the concept you presented here even before I read a single word of the prose. The map and the text are very accurate in my mind, and I found it very entertaining — even enlightening — to read this.

    Thank you!

  2. I’ll certainly be updating this map as my visualization improves (and maybe when I find a good artist :)). I am unhappy about not showing how universities play a role, non-verbal communication, negotiations… wish communication were simple enough to visualize as a 12-step maturation scale where ‘black belts’ on the top would be the experts. Unfortunately, communication maturity is a branching tree…

  3. Fascinating! I love the map, and your travels! I wonder if that preverbal ocean is really tranquil, or if has large surf, glacial chunks and white caps.

    Envisioning my own map of communication steers me into other terrain. We all wear bifocals, with a lens of ‘where we come from’ –our unique experience — and the lens of ‘where we’re going ‘ determining/enabling our unique visions.

    The field of communication is huge — which makes it all the more fun to consider the many maps there could be.

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!

  4. Thanks Sharon. I like your bifocals metaphor. I wonder if there might be an interesting way to visualize combinations of maps made by different people.