The Powerful Secret Used By The Best Communicators

Social Perception Versus Message Production

In my last post, I talked about the development of communication skills from childhood to adulthood, and I described how we might use the lessons of normal development to improve our own communication skills.

I noted how our mental maps of the social world tend to get better as we mature. As people learn and grow, they acquire more dimensions (i.e., more adjectives) for representing the social world. 

The dimensions get more abstract, and they get more interconnected. The analogy was that we move from low-resolution, black and white to high-resolution color maps of the social world, and the improved representations help us navigate the social world more skillfully.

This developmental progression is mostly about perception. But at the same time, there is a parallel process of development in our ability to produce effective messages. 

Generally speaking, adolescents produce more effective messages than children, and adults are more effective than adolescents. When I say more effective I mean they are better at everyday communication tasks like explaining, requesting, comforting, criticizing, or persuading.

Just as there is a developmental progression in social perception, there is also a normal progression in how we learn to design messages to achieve social goals. The rest of this article describes the stages of development in our ability to produce messages. 

The Logic of Message Design

In 1988, a communication researcher named Barbara O’Keefe wrote a paper called “The Logic of Message Design: Individual Differences in Reasoning about Communication.” In it, O’Keefe explained that, just as there is a normal progression in the development of our internal maps of the social world, there is a similar progression in our mastery of language production.

She explains this as a process of learning how language works, what it’s good for, and how it can be used to achieve our goals. There are three stages in development, corresponding to three distinct ‘logics of message design,’ which O’Keefe called expressive, conventional, and rhetorical. Each corresponds to a more complete and developmentally mature grasp of the powers of language. 

The Expressive Logic of Message Design

Think about the scene in The Miracle Worker, the movie about Helen Keller, the young girl who was born unable to speak, hear, or see. The most memorable scene in the movie is when the tutor holds Helen’s hand under the water pump and Helen realizes she can use sign language to express her thoughts. She signs the letters w-a-t-e-r into her tutor’s palm.

The Famous Water Scene from "The Miracle Worker" movie. (1962) Starring Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft. Enjoy! Special dedication to "blessOTMA" :)

At some point during normal development, each of us comes to the same realization: Language can be used to express our inner thoughts and emotions! What was once only private, language can make public. At this moment, we grasp the expressive power of language. This is the first step toward being a competent adult communicator, but there is much more to learn.

Someone who uses the expressive message design logic believes that the main purpose of language is to express their thoughts in the clearest, most unfiltered way possible. They see communication as successful to the extent that they have faithfully expressed their thoughts. 

We know such people, people who think the main goal of communication is to make the contents of their head public.

We say they have “no filter.” They are “brutally honest.” They are not so much fun to be around. Although they have mastered the expressive function of language, it seems like they are missing something important about how communication works.

More skillful communicators know that unfiltered expression is not the most effective approach to language. Even the briefest introspection reveals that there are many thoughts in our heads that are better left unsaid! 

The Conventional Logic of Message Design

Eventually, most of us realize that language is more than just a tool for expressing our thoughts and emotions. We begin to understand that language use takes place in a social world of other people, and this world is full of roles and rules. We start to appreciate that language resembles a game played by social rules. This is the beginning of the acquisition of what O’Keefe calls the conventional message design logic.

The word conventional refers to the many social conventions, like politeness, that govern the social world. Mastery of the conventional logic of message design means mastery of these conventions. It means learning to use language in accordance to the rules.

An example of a social convention would be that when someone says “thank you,” you say “you’re welcome.” Or when someone makes an offer, you either accept or refuse. 

Whereas someone with the expressive logic (an “expressive”) sees clear, unimpeded signaling as the main goal of communication, someone with the conventional logic (a “conventional”) sees the main goal of communication as saying what is appropriate given the current context. 

A conventional logic of message design causes one to focus on the rights and obligations ordinarily associated with particular social roles.

But where do these rules and conventions come from? Who defines the social context and thereby determines what is appropriate and what is not? 

Rhetorica, by Georg Pencz (c. 1500-1550). Engraving, stamped in black ink. From the New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Rhetorica, by Georg Pencz (c. 1500-1550). Engraving, stamped in black ink. From the New York Public Library Digital Collection.

The Rhetorical Logic of Message Design

With further growth, development, and experience in the social world, many people begin to realize that the roles, rules, and conventions of the social world are not fixed and absolute like natural laws, but are themselves created and modified by language use in social interaction. 

This recognition heralds the final stage in the development of communication skill.

Someone who uses the rhetorical logic of message design realizes that language has the power to create, re-interpret, redefine, and re-negotiate every aspect of the social context, including the definition of the situation, its goals, and the roles, identities, rights, and obligations of the participants.

It's all negotiable, subject to creation and recreation, interpretation and re-interpretation in interaction.

This is the secret the most skillful communicators use to succeed. They exploit the creative power of language to shape social situations in ways that help them maintain their relationships and achieve their goals.

For the expressive, the goal of communication is clear signaling of their thoughts. For a conventional, it is obedience to the rules and appropriateness to the context. For the rhetorical communicator, the object of communication is to negotiate social consensus about plans, goals, intentions, and the definition of the situation in ways that help them get what they want. 

Rhetorical communicators see every interaction as a performance, and because they know that identities and meanings are created through these performances, they are acutely sensitive to every detail of script, scene, and costume. Every word and gesture is carefully chosen to dramatize certain identities and to bring into being a certain definition of the situation.

And all of this effort is directed at the achievement of some goal (e.g., gaining compliance, comforting, regulating someone’s behavior, comforting, etc.). 

To maximize your effectiveness, you need to master the ability to use language in these creative ways, to use words to create your social situation rather than to let the situation dictate what words to use (or even worse, to just say whatever you're thinking).


In both social perception and message production, that is, in seeing and in speaking, there is a normal developmental progression that corresponds to increasing levels of communication skill. 

In perception, our maps of the social world become increasingly complex and detailed as we mature. This enables us to take others’ perspectives more accurately and navigate the social world more effectively.

In message production, we first learn to express our thoughts in language. Then we learn to adapt what we say to fit the context and the social situation, mastering a sense of appropriateness. Finally, we come to understand that the social world itself is created by what we say and how we act, and we begin to use language strategically to define situations in ways that help us maintain social cohesion and achieve our goals.

Not everyone progresses through all of these steps. Some adults still use an expressive logic, some conventional, and some rhetorical. Each has advantages and disadvantages, though generally research shows that people using a rhetorical logic to design messages are seen as the most effective.

A lot of this may seem abstract. In an upcoming blog entry, I’ll analyze some messages to try to make these differences in style more concrete.

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