Means of Communication Through Verbal and Non-verbal Modes



It is important to note that communication can be verbal, ie. through words, oral or written but also through other means ie. non-verbal. Most of our communication is supplemented by body language and it is this that adds effect to our oral communication. Then you might wonder which mode is better. The answer is - all modes are good, but we should know when to use what. Let us discuss the advantages of each mode and the occasions for their use.

One way communication and two-way communication

All communication involves a flow of information. One-way communication informs the receiver but does not receive any response. When a person is physically far off, and there is no medium to facilitate communication, only one-way communication is possible. Someone talking over a megaphone from the edge of a big ship can communicate with people in a small boat down below. No response is possible in such cases. But such communication comes under the category of 'transmission' rather than 'communication'. In this type of communication, there is the grave danger id one's seeing what they want to see.

But sometimes, we do not require any response either. School bells, factory sirens, traffic signals come under this category and they are quite effective. But one-way communication between two or more persons has the danger of being understood wrongly.

Two-way communication is an exchange of information and ideas. Most of the time we engage in two-way communication. This develops understanding. Two-way communication is like a seesaw. We need the active participation of both the participants. Otherwise, there is no play. It would be like trying to clap with one hand. Some people, especially teachers, make the mistake of transmitting information rather than communicating with the students. Of course, several politicians do so too.

The following is an illustration of such mismatches in the communication process

One Way communication

B does not understand properly

B wants clarification, he has questions to ask.

A does not realize this.

Two Way Communication


VERBAL COMMUNICATION: Oral and Written Modes

Verbal communication is communication through words. This can occur in either of two modes, oral or written. Oral communication is more natural and spontaneous, and we use this mode most of the time. A great percentage of our communication is oral communication. But in formal situations, written communication is required, and not everyone can communicate effectively in writing. This may be because of barriers to effective communication, ie.  psychological barriers, or lack of technique.

It is important to understand which mode to select for communicating effectively. Let's first discuss where the oral and written modes are effectively used, and where a combination of the two is required.


The Oral Mode is Used Where

➤ Personal authentication is needed. e.g., between an officer and his/her personal secretary; a journalist and his/her source ( "I heard it from a reliable source")

➤ Social or gregarious needs must be met. e.g., speaking with a visiting delegation

➤  Warmth and personal qualities are called for. e.g., group or team interaction

➤ Exactitude and precision are not vitally important. e.g., brain-storming for ideas

➤  Situations demand maximum understanding. e.g., sorting out problems or differences between individuals, or between two groups such as administration and students.

➤  An atmosphere of openness is desired.e.g., talks between management and workers

➤  The added impact is needed to get receiver focus. e.g., a chairperson of an organization addressing the staff; a presidential or  royal address to nation

➤  Decisions or information have to be communicated quickly. e.g., officers issuing orders during natural disasters such as floods or an earthquake

➤  Confidential matters are to be discussed. e.g., exchange of positive or negative information about an organization or an individual. In the process of appointments, or promotion or selection of individuals, a period if open discussion may precede the final decision that is recorded in writing.

The Written Mode is Used Where

➤  Information has to be stored and retrieved. e.g., official records

➤  The reliability and validity of an idea are important. e.g., decisions taken by a group, to be acted upon

➤  The verification and authentication of an idea are important. e.g., a memo from a superior about new accounting practices

➤  Objective references are important. e.g., a research article or informative article

➤  Written communication supplements oral communication. e.g., the minutes of a meeting

➤  Crucial decisions and actions are to be considered. e.g., plans and proposals

➤  Communication is subject to review and reconsideration. e.g., goals, performance appraisals

➤  Personal presence is not required. e.g., circulating a list of holidays for organizations to choose from; routine good wishes at the new year

➤  The communicator needs to extend himself in time and space. e.g., a letter from a company head to all its branches in a country, or around the world

Where Both Modes are Used

➤  when people are expected to 'carry home' ideas. e.g. after a brain-storming session, individuals or teams are asked to develop plans

➤  When follow-up activities are necessary. e.g. after a consultative meeting

➤  When optimal understanding is needed. e.g. a joint communique about international trade agreements

➤  When both clarity and impact are needed. e.g. a new product is launched in the market

➤  When the presentation is exploratory. e.g. a team member presents ideas for anew product

➤  When audience participation is desired. e.g. the presentation of building development plans for a city

➤  When abstract or 'remote' ideas are to be communicated. e.g. a presentation at a science congress or academic conference


All communication that conveys a message need not be verbal. We can convey our feelings through a smile, a frown, or silence. Non-verbal communication is communication that is not conveyed through words. Non-verbal communication may be visual or auditory.

Symbols, signs, sounds, eye contact and facial expression, body postures, gestures, and physical appearance ─ all these constitute non-verbal communication. Silence too falls into this category. In olden days, when communication media were not well-developed, drums and fire were used as a mode of communication. People would communicate through a relay in the beating of drums. There were different lengths and notes of the drumbeat for different purposes.

Symbols and signs are used where one-way communication is adequate and effective. For example, it is enough to give a picture of a petrol pump or a telephone on a signpost for a driver on a highway to know what is available nearby. Similarly, a school bell gives information to the children to assemble or disperse. 

the language barrier can easily be overcome with non-verbal signs, which is why signs are used instead of words like Exit, Stairs, or Toilet at all major national or international public places such as airports, railway stations or tourist centres.
Similarly, communication can be made with gestures. A cricket umpire makes gestures to the scorer and players about the runs, their nature and also to declare them out. 
A football referee warns the players about a foul through colour cards.

Judicious selection of the right mode of communication for a purpose is the crux of effective communication. In business communication, the non-verbal mode includes using audio-visual aids or media that supplement or support oral or written communication, especially during formal presentations. Thus non-verbal communication is very important and complements verbal communication.

Certain signals work very well as they are fixed and commonly understood. Traffic lights and road signs are easily understood by everyone. Election symbols are easy to pick out on a ballot paper especially when the number of candidates is large ─ it is easier to look for a symbol than read a big list of manes of candidates ─ or the electorate is not entirely literate, or literate in a variety of scripts. These are popular modes of communication becomes more complex and varied that we need language, and non-verbal communication relegates itself to a complementary, if not secondary, role.

Advantages of Non-verbal Communication
Visual communication is very advantageous when quick communication has to be made to a large group, or a person has to understand short, simple message in a fleeting moment.

Consider the role of signals. Anybody who sees a red light automatically stops the vehicle without conscious thought, almost reflexively. The danger sign of a skull with two crossbones instantaneously communicates a warning. The waving of a green or red flag by a railway guard or a station master passes on a clear message to the driver and to the people on the platform. A flare from a boat is easy to pick up for a rescuing plane.

Some road symbol signs and traffic symbols


Some symbols are universal and easy to understand. They are popular and convey the same message in almost all cultures. A heart signifies love. A dove with a twig in its beak, or a white flag, indicates peace or surrender.


Logos are strikingly effective. Private companies spend time, money and effort developing logos that symbolize them and are memorable and meaningful. If you surf the Internet, you will find sites that challenge you to identify some common and not-so-commonly known logos. Logos are recognized by children before they begin to read, as advertisers know; and logos are also widely copied, sometimes with minimal changes to trap the unwary and often illiterate consumer.


Graphs, Charts and Flow Charts

Graphs, charts, and flow charts are effective means of communication. Let us consider a couple of examples. The details of the mode of transport preferred by office goers can be better represented as a graph than as a verbal description. Similarly, the split up of expenditure of a country can be effectively shown through a pie-diagram. The organizational set of a university can easily be shown through a flow-chart.

Mode of transport used by office goers 

How the  money is spent by the government

Facial expression is fundamental contribute to effective communication and sometimes referred to as the "visible code". "We talk with our vocal chords, but we communicate with our facial expressions, our tone of voice, our whole body", says a psychologist. During a television interview, a mayor denies any knowledge of a bribe paid by a visiting delegation ― but the camera focuses on his hand, which are making nervous and tense gestures. "When people don't know whether to believe what they are hearing or what they are seeing, they go with the body language ― it tells them the truth", says a management consultant. "You can play fast and loose with words, but it is much more difficult to do that with gestures".
The scientific study of body language is called kinesics.

Eye Contact

Eye contact is one of the most important factors in effective communication. When we want someone's attention, we say that we are trying to "catch their eye". Conversely, we know that a person who doesn't look at us is trying to avoid us.
The eyes have been called the windows of the soul; they seem to reflect our nature. A speaker should always look at the listeners. He should not, because of his own nervousness, look down or look up, or gaze out through the windows while he is speaking. This will give the listeners an impression to the listeners that the speaker is not interested in what (s)he is saying.

When speaking to a group, look at all the listeners; avoid focussing on any part of the group, or on an individual. Some nervous speakers make this mistake if some person or persons seem to keenly follow their talk. It is for the speaker to bring everybody into the talk and make them focus on him or her.

Remember that looking at someone to establish eye contact is different from staring at them (which is offensive) or looking into their eyes (which is reserved for lovers!). In an interview, for example, if the interviewee looks right back at the interviewer throughout the time a question is asked and answered, the interviewee may be thought to be aggressive, cheeky or disrespectful. In such situation the acceptable direction of the gaze is towards the interlocutor's face, without fixating on any particular feature; and the gaze is occasionally broken by looking away.

Personal  Appearance

A uniform is a code; it tells the people around a person what his or her profession is. This is how we identify a policeman, a fire-fighter or a hotel employee. We instinctively turn to a person in uniform when there is trouble in a public place.
Some professions do not have a uniform, but the dress is important for them as they deal with the public. Medical representatives and salespersons, for example, are always formally dressed in a shirt and tie. Academics and intellectuals may, on the other hand, make it a point to show their independence from public opinion by dressing very differently.

The dress is important for a speaker. A shabbily dressed speaker can hardly command the respect or attention of the audience. The Proper dress gives the audience a feeling that you, care for them, that you respect them. This is the reason people prefer a tie, a plain shirt and polished shoes for formal occasions.


Proper posture is also important for good communication. Leaning backwards, swinging the legs, resting the head backwards in reclining chair or swivelling too frequently or playfully ― are all bad manners. Bend forward a little, keeping the elbows at the side of the trunk of your body, to indicate that you are listening attentively.

The physical distance between people is usually a clear indication of the relationship between them. The idiom 'to keep someone at arm's length' clearly tells us that the more the distance, the weaker the relationship. The study of the human use of space within the context of culture is called proxemics and is associated with the American anthropologist Edward T. Hall. Hall defined three kinds of personal spaces that surround individuals:


➤  Intimate space--the closest "bubble" of space surrounding a person. Entry into this space is acceptable only for the closest friends and intimates.

➤  Social and consultative spaces – the spaces in which people feel comfortable conducting routine social interactions with acquaintances as well as strangers.

➤  Public space – the area of space beyond which people will perceive interactions as impersonal and relatively anonymous.

Physical distance plays a large role in communication and is normally achieved very intuitively. Gender sensitivity, cultural practices, and individual preferences all govern our ideas about how much personal space around us we are comfortable with.

In some cultures, a pat from a superior may give an employee a feeling confidence and satisfaction that his work is being recognized or appreciated. Similarly, a warm hug or hearty shake hand may let the worker know that the boss is open and sincere and wants a good relationship. A lecturer standing on an elevated platform can rarely strike up a rapport with his students. One who goes closer to the students, walking in between the aisles, may strike the right chord of intimacy. But too much closeness between a superior and his staff may be seen as intimidating.

Some people use the wrong body language when they are emotional or wish to express something forcefully. A raised hand and pointing finger can always be construed as a threat.

Silence: Its Role in Communication

Silence is a powerful intriguing medium of communication. It has a dramatic impact. It has a determinant effect – it is power.


Silence can be interpreted in more than one way. Sensitivity is a pre-requisite for the effective use of silence as a communication tool. It could be effectively used to express one's protest. It can also provoke introspection in speakers as well as listeners.

Silence can have a dramatic effect in presentations or speeches to draw the attention of everyone – those who are chatting quietly, or even mapping. However, if it is not used appropriately, it is open to misconstrual as lack of preparation on the part of the speaker.

Silence can be appropriate or inappropriate depending on the situation. It can be a very good tool in negotiations. When unrealistic demands are made by a party or workers' unions, a stoic silence can make the other party scale down their rates or demands. When someone is emotional, it is desirable to maintain silence until s/he lets out all the steam. It is easier to handle a person whose anger has cooled down.

Limitations of Non-verbal Communication

Colourful charts and hoardings are no doubt very attractive, but they are expensive and take time to produce and install. Where the purpose is limited and costs to be cut, this mode is not appropriate. Huge and attractive hoardings can divert the attention of vehicle drivers and cause accidents or traffic jams. There have also been instances of improperly erected hoardings being blown down in the storm, injuring or even killing people.

The strength of non-verbal communication is also its limitation. Its strength is that it cuts across language and literacy barriers, as we have seen. Its limitation is that not all gestures and symbols are universal. Where a given gesture or symbol can be interpreted in more than one way, it gives rise to ambiguity and miscommunication.


Communication can be classified into Verbal and Non-verbal communication. Verbal communication involves oral and written modes. Non-verbal communication does not use words. Non-verbal communication cuts across language barriers. It is sometimes very quick to communicate. But it has the danger of not being understood or even being misunderstood due to variations in cultures. Symbols, visuals, dress code, postures, silence, eye contact, space distancing, body language ㅡ are some of the contributors to non-verbal communication. Studies suggest that about 45% of our communication is supplemented by the non-verbal mode. It acts as a stimulus to effective communication. Verbal and non-verbal communication are supportive and complementary.

Further Reading

Hall Edward 1959, The Silent Language: Greenwich

Babu Rao, GSRK 2002. Business Communication and Report Writing: Himalaya Publishers.
Krishna Mohan & Meera Banerji 1990 Developing Communication Skills: Macmillan.
Monipally, M.M. 1996 Effective Communication Skills: Tata McGraw Hill.
Pinker, Steven 1994. The Language Instinct: Penguin Books.

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